FLIGHT OF DECADES

Flight of Decades is the story of one family’s encounter with a swarm of insane spirits and a history of mayhem.  Karen Noland’s long dead father, Karl Penwalski has given her a choice.  She can risk her life and her sanity to fight and probably fail to stop a madness that has plagued humanity since forever, or she can run for the hills.  Karen has chosen to fight, and with a lot of help from the deputy of a small town in Idaho, she puts herself in the path of one of history’s most undaunted forces.

FLIGHT OF DECADES
By
Frankie Valind

“There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.
I don’t know why she swallowed a fly.
Perhaps she’ll die.”
Rose Bonne: 1950’s

PROLOGUE
The room was dark except for the sliver of sunlight that came through where the heavy curtains parted, and the smell was of stale breath and sickness. Ty sat down in the straight backed chair beside his father’s bed and put the small plastic grocery store bag he’d brought with him on the night stand. The old man sat slumped at the head of the bed. His eyes were open, but Ty wasn’t sure he was awake.
“I brought you the mints you wanted.”
“Who are you?”
“It’s me, Dad. Tyler.”
Nothing
“Your son?”
“I don’t remember.”
“That’s okay.” Ty let out a sigh. His father was getting worse.
The old man rubbed at his wrinkled forehead and closed his eyes. His skin was like old leather, and when he raised his eyebrows, his face reminded Ty of an ancient book cover that had been touched by hundreds of hands.
“Ty?”
“Yes Dad.”
“Why did Valerie get into the fireplace?”
“I don’t know.” No one knew.
“Ty?”
“Yes Dad.”
“I thought I was forty one, but I feel much older today.” He looked at Ty pleadingly. His right eye twitched.
“You’re eighty-three years old. You just had a birthday last week. There was a party.” If you could call three old men watching Columbo reruns and gumming sugar free chocolate cake a party.
Silence
“Dad?”
“I don’t remember that.”
“That’s okay.”
Ty remembered when his father was still teaching history over at the high-school. He’d been able to remember trivia from centuries passed. Now, he couldn’t remember the details of this own life.
“Hold my hand,” the old man whispered bringing his trembling hand from underneath the rust colored blanket.
“Alright.”
Ty took his father’s yellowing, bony hand into his own which was large and darkest brown and gave a squeeze.
“Your mother…Valerie,” he began.
“Uh huh.”
“I think she was murdered.”
“Why would you think that, Dad?”
“I think she was murdered because I loved her.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I loved her, and she loved me. She wouldn’t have killed herself.” He closed his eyes again.
“Who do you think murdered her, Dad?”
“Murdered who?” The old man asked, blinking.
“Mother.”
“You’re mother?”
“Yes Dad.”
“Was her name Valerie?”
“Yes Dad.”
“Witches.”
“What?”
“Witches murdered Valerie. They put her in the fireplace and burned her up until she was just a skeleton.”
“There’s no such thing as witches, Dad.”
“Oh.” Ty’s father looked down at his lap. “I forgot that.”
“That’s okay.”

“Maybe, God is more evil than good. Maybe, he’s enjoying this.”
A dying man: October 10, 1850

CHAPTER ONE
October 10, Ten Years Ago
Karl Penwalski glanced at his reflection as he walked past the full length mirror on the bedroom wall. His hair was still thick and black, and his body still looked pretty good, pretty good for a dead man, anyway. He had done a lot of walking in the last ten years.
Karl was tired but relieved. His time was just about up. No, it wasn’t as if he’d had a choice but Karl had stuck to his end of the bargain. He made himself open, and there was no way for him to turn back after that.
Karl was absolutely certain that he had made the wrong choice. His life wasn’t worth the lives he’d cost. He was tricked and lost control. Even his time with his wife and daughter was tainted. He was never alone with his family. They were always with him.
Karl agreed to the terms of the bargain because he was promised time (and time was precious then) to get his affairs in order. There was a lot he needed to do before he left his family. If Karl had died ten years ago, when he was supposed to, Maryanne would have been forced to keep working and to raise Karen all alone. She wouldn’t have had enough even to bury him with. The bargain promised Karl a second chance to make sure that his wife and daughter were left happy and secure. It was too good to be true.
Oh, they kept their promises. Karl was being paid well for his time. He had investment income and life insurance that would take care of Maryanne and Karen for the rest of their lives. Now, Karen could be whatever she wanted to be. That was true. They did all of that, but the other things they did made everything else meaningless.
Karl removed his clean, white shirt and took off his navy blue pants. He folded the clothes and laid them neatly on the wooden chair beside the bed (no reason to start being sloppy now). He took a moment to appreciate the king size bed with its ornate brass headboard and white lace bedding. Then he lay down on top of the covers and closed his eyes.
Buying this bed had been a very big deal to his young wife. The old bed was a Salvation Army bargain. It must have been about twenty years old when they got it. This was to be their first new bed together, and all the memories it held would be theirs.
Maryanne did almost all of the furniture shopping and decorating by herself. Karl was simply not interested. He felt bad for his wife though. She wanted so desperately for them to have the perfect life, and she believed that picking out the perfect furniture would help. Karl knew then that such a thing was impossible.
For the most part, Maryanne put up with his lack of interest silently, but when it came time to pick out their first, brand new bed, and Karl refused to help her, she cried.
Karl’s head was pounding.

CHAPTER TWO
Maryanne Penwalski felt blessed as she walked up the long flight of stairs and down the hallway that led to the master bedroom. She let her eyes rest on the photos arranged perfectly in their tasteful frames and appreciated the softness of the warmly colored carpet under her bare feet. This was her dream house, all she’d wanted since she was a little girl. She was a queen in a castle.
For Maryanne, the last ten years had been a gift. The Penwalskis were finally finished with their long run of bad luck. At one time, their lives were like a roller coaster that went straight down for years at a time and only came up briefly and only a little bit. Things had gotten better…a lot better.

Maryanne first met her would-be husband at a little delicatessen in Savanna, Georgia. It was back when Maryanne was twenty-five and working as a secretary for a Real Estate office. She was out getting lunch for herself and her two bosses when she noticed the gentleman standing behind her in line. He was striking. He had thick black hair and a perfect, strong face, brownish grey eyes and huge dimples that sprung into life when he smiled at her.
At the time, Maryanne was finally getting used to the idea that she might never fall in love and get married the way most of her friends had done already. Her parents had been annoying her for years, telling Maryanne she needed to find someone and settle down to raise a family. They acted as though she was resisting in some way.
Maryanne hadn’t been asked out on many dates. She didn’t believe it was because she wasn’t pretty. Maryanne thought she was better than average looking, and everyone told her she was pretty. It was more that she didn’t get out much. She spent a lot of time with her parents and a lot of time at work. Most of her friends were married, so she didn’t end up in many places where singles gathered, and she wasn’t the type to go to those places by herself.
What Maryanne’s parents didn’t know was that Maryanne wanted to find a nice man and raise a family more than they wanted it for her. The problem was that she didn’t know how to go about fixing herself up.
But there was something about the man standing behind her. It was the way he returned her casual smile. When she looked back at him a second time, she felt something…a spark. Maryanne felt blood rush to her face and turned away embarrassed. Then there was a hand on her shoulder. She turned around again.
“I’m Karl,” he said, “Penwalski.”
“Oh, I…I’m Maryanne Banks. It’s nice to meet you.” She felt silly. She must seem incredibly obvious to him. Oh well, she would at least be polite and maintain some dignity. Maryanne stuck out her hand. Karl took it. He didn’t shake it. He held it and didn’t let go right away…sparks.
The moment was interrupted briefly by the business of sandwiches. After being called back to earth by the slightly impatient cashier, Maryanne placed her order and paid for the three lunches. She stepped out of line to wait.
Karl ordered his sandwich and joined Maryanne.
After some very minor small talk about lunches and jobs, Karl answered Maryanne’s silent prayer by saying, “Can I take you to dinner sometime?”
What a wonderful voice he had. It was like the ocean.
“I think I’d like that,” was Maryanne’s best effort at coyness. “When?”
“Will tonight work for you?”
Maryanne Banks married Karl Penwalski two months later, and together they bought a small house. They were in love and full of hope. They were living the American dream, and things went well for them for about a year. Then Maryanne got pregnant, and everything went downhill from there.

Both Maryanne and Karl were genuinely happy about having a new baby on the way. They thought they would be able to manage just fine, but things didn’t go their way.
It was a rough pregnancy starting about the second month. Maryanne suffered a lot of pain, and there was a lot of bleeding. Eventually, she had to quit her job. She spent the last full month of her pregnancy in the hospital. She’d picked up that very nasty influenza virus that was going around back then. It wasn’t a huge deal for most people (they were really sick for a week, and then they got better), but Maryanne’s immune system wasn’t up for the task. She had a hard time fighting it off. At one point her fever was so bad she almost died. The doctor said it was a miracle she didn’t lose the baby.
Medical insurance only covered part of the expenses, so Maryanne and Karl had to dig into their minimal savings and get a second mortgage on the house to pay the bills.
Karl was passed up for two promotions, and his salary never increased beyond the basal cost of living. The Penwalskis were struggling for everything.
Maryanne’s condition improved with the end of the pregnancy, but when their daughter Karen was born on December twentieth (about a year and nine months after the wedding), she had to have heart surgery. The new family had to scrimp even more. Neither of her parents would have traded Karen for any amount of money, but she was sickly, and she was in and out of hospitals for the whole first part of her life. That made her a very expensive child.
Maryanne couldn’t go back to work after Karen was born because Karen needed such close supervision and care. She didn’t start school until she was six, but Maryanne made a point of teaching at home so Karen wouldn’t be behind when she started the first grade. When she did go to school, Karen ended up coming home sick so often that Maryanne felt she had to stay home just in case.

Finally, when Karen turned seven, she started gaining weight, and she seemed to be getting healthier every day. It started to look like things might get better.
Maryanne started working again as a receptionists for a dance studio (not a lucrative position, but it helped), and she and Karl managed to get some bills under control. For the first time, the Penwalskis were making it to the end of the month without getting any nasty letters, and soon, they even had a little left over.
They decided to take Karen on a special vacation for her eighth birthday. School was out until after the holidays and Disneyland wasn’t all that far away.
It was the best time. The young parents had never seen their little girl so happy. Karen deserved that. They would all simply have to cut back a little to pay for it.

The curse the Penwalski family thought they’d broken struck home again a few days after they returned from Disneyland. Maryanne awoke to strange sounds coming from her daughter’s bedroom. At first, it sounded like someone was trying to start a small truck, and the engine wouldn’t catch. Then it worsened into a nightmarish hack that wouldn’t let up. About fifteen minutes into that first fit of coughs, Karen started coughing up blood, so Maryanne and Karl rushed their little girl to the hospital emergency room for what seemed like the millionth time, and Karen was admitted with a severe case of pneumonia. It was another setback.
Just as Karen was getting over her pneumonia, Karl started having his headaches. At first, they were just little ones, and aspirin did the trick nicely, but within a year, they had developed tragically into unbearable, incurable monsters. Karl would lock himself into the bathroom and sit in the tub for hours at a time with the lights out, waiting for the pain to pass. It was hard on the whole family. It seemed that the lights at the end of their tunnels were always trains.
Karl was up for another promotion right about the time his headaches got bad, and once again, the family had a ray of hope. Then he missed an important interview because of his pain, and the company chose someone else. Maryanne knew that losing that promotion had broken Karl’s heart. He was like a rat on a treadmill with a cat running only a few paces behind him.
The whole family was devastated when they got the news about Karl’s tumor, but Karl seemed more depressed about not being able to provide for his family than he was about his own loss. He felt guilty; like it was his fault they were having such bad luck. Maryanne didn’t care about blame. It was nobody’s fault. She only worried about living a life without the man she loved. Men like Karl didn’t come around more than once in a life time.

Maryanne remembered Karl going out for a drive one day about a week after learning his prognosis. He was gone for almost three hours, but when he came back, he said his headache was gone.
Karl went back to the hospital and insisted that all the tests be redone. Several days later, he got a call from his doctor saying that the first tests must have been mistaken. There was no tumor, no cancer. It was a miracle.
After they got the news that Karl was okay, things got better and better. Karl got a call from a company in Boston that wanted him to come and work for them. Maryanne found it strange. She didn’t believe accountants were a rare, sought after commodity, especially in a big city like Boston. She figured they had to have accountants crawling out of the woodwork. But for some reason Stonewall Finances wanted her Karl on their team.
The Penwalskis moved from Savanna, Georgia to Boston Massachusetts right away, and after they’d been there for less than a year, Karl started making investments. Suddenly Karl was magical King Midas or something. Everything he touched turned to gold. Now they weren’t just secure. They were rich. Now they had a beautiful house, nice cars, new furniture, and plenty of money. The future looked very bright indeed.

Everything was almost perfect, but Maryanne couldn’t deny it. There was definitely a tradeoff for their new leisurely lifestyle. Something had happened to Karl. He was distant. He went on long trips and worked late hours. He refused to let Maryanne or Karen come to his office…ever, and he didn’t want to make love anymore. She hadn’t been intimate with her husband in almost ten years.
Maryanne thought she understood. Karl was working so hard and everything. It was strange. When she and Karl were poor, they made love all the time, and they both wanted it. Now, it just didn’t seem so important. Maryanne felt that she and Karl had given up something so they could have this life. More than that she believed that maybe she had given up something just to have him with her. Maryanne would have paid any price to keep Karl with her.
Maryanne could handle her husband’s inwardness, and she could handle not making love. However it was much harder to accept the distance between Karl and Karen. They avoided each other. Karen spent more time with her friends than she did at home.
Maryanne tried sometimes to keep Karen in the house by telling her she should stay home with her family for a change. On those occasions, Karl would say, “Let her go, Honey. She’s a kid. Let her have her fun.” Then he would give Karen some money.
Karl seemed sad around Karen, and Karen seemed nervous around her father. It wasn’t healthy. They had been so close before.
Maryanne wanted to bring her family closer together, but with Karen off at school in New York, there wasn’t much hope. Still she thanked God every day for her husband. Maryanne hated more than almost anything the thought of being alone.
She walked into the bedroom with the big yellow basket full of clean clothes in her hands.

Karl had gone back upstairs after breakfast. He had undressed down to his boxer shorts and was lying face up on top of the covers. How strange. Maryanne stood there with her basket for a minute looking at him.
Karl had taken good care of himself. He still had a spectacular body. She wondered sometimes if he’d had affairs. Maryanne had certainly seen the middle age crisis scenario played out among some of her friends. It didn’t matter. Karl wasn’t like that. He came home at night and slept beside her.
Maryanne bent down and put the clothes basket inside the doorway and walked toward Karl. Maybe she would join him for a little nap. As she got closer, she noticed how pale his face seemed. It was only a shade darker than the white comforter. Maryanne’s heart pounded in her chest. All the fear she’d felt that day when Karl told her about his brain tumor, all the panic was with her again. She walked faster, but each step was a torture. She was aware of every creek in the floor boards.
Suddenly she was overwhelmed by an intense sensation. Someone else was in the room with her and her husband, and something was terribly wrong. Maryanne steeled herself and moved forward.
When she was close enough, Maryanne reached out and ran her fingers gingerly through her husband’s hair. “Karl?” She whispered, and placed a delicate hand on his face.
His skin was alien cold. She drew her hand away.
“Karl! What’s wrong?” She screamed.
There was no answer.
Maryanne got down on her knees beside the bed. She put an ear down onto Karl’s cold chest and saw herself in the mirror across the room. Her dark brown skin made Karl’s seem all the more ghostly.
There was no heartbeat, but there was something.
Clicking
It sounded like someone typing quickly and randomly on a tiny typewriter, or like millions of fingernails being clicked together. And there was something moving against her cheek. It felt like…crawling.
Maryanne thought she heard herself screaming as she stumbled back toward the door. She stopped in the doorway and looked at her husband’s body. His chest seemed to be bubbling under the skin. It seemed that just under the surface, little monsters were moving about…and making that horrible sound.
She brought her hands up to her neck and tried to look away, but she couldn’t move her head or her legs. So she watched as a dark, sinister line formed magically down the center of Karl’s chest. It was as if some invisible sorcerer used a magic marker on him. The line grew steadily darker and then darker. Maryanne watched in terror.
Just when Maryanne thought she might be able to turn her head…and then her body…and flee the room, the dark line ruptured into an open gash. It looked like the mouth of a creature. It looked like it wanted to bite her.
Maryanne jumped back a step, but still, she couldn’t turn her eyes away. She stared into the black hole in front of her and felt as if someone reached into her own body and twisted her lungs like dish clothes. She couldn’t breathe anymore. She opened her mouth to suck in air, but something was blocking her throat. Maryanne’s knees locked, and she started to sway back and forth. Her eyes remained glued to the hole in her husband’s chest. There was something…in it!
It was dark and horrible. It was unspeakable evil.
Maryanne wanted to run, but even now, she could do nothing but watch. Things started crawling out of the hole. There were millions of black legs and hard bodies. As they crawled over each other, they made the clicking sound.
Maryanne gagged and her hand came up from her neck to cover her mouth. Her husband’s entire body and his face were crawling with them.
Cockroaches!
Karl’s body was covered in cockroaches!
Things went gray for Maryanne and would eventually go to black, but not before she could see them take flight.

CHAPTER THREE
September 25, Year Five
Karen Noland was fed up. Marrying Mark was the stupidest thing she’d ever done. Why had she gone through with it? Mark was the first and only man she’d dated seriously in her whole life. Any fool could have told her she wasn’t ready, but there was no one around who cared enough about her to take an interest.
It was her own fault really. Karen had always maintained a distance from people and never had much interest in friendships or socializing of any kind. Except for the time she shared with her mother, Karen had spent her teen years in Boston alone. There were long hours spent walking through parks and sitting in the library hidden in some corner by herself. She read books and drew pictures and sometimes even napped at the library, all to avoid coming home and being around her father.

Karen’s fondest memories of adolescence and young adulthood were of the times she and her mother had been at home-just the two of them-watching scary movies, cleaning or trying new recipes. When she spent time with just her mother, Karen felt safe. She knew she could tell her mother anything and the two of them shared everything from clothing and cooking to boys and career dreams. It was a true friendship on almost every level.
However, there was one subject that could turn a pleasant conversation between mother and daughter into a long winded, single sided diatribe in ten seconds or less. That was the subject of Karen’s relationship with her father. Karen’s mother wanted to fix things between them, and Karen wanted to avoid the topic all together. Thus, once the subject came up, a lecture from Mom was a certainty.
Karen’s mother believed that the rift between her husband and her daughter could be repaired. She wouldn’t admit that there was something wrong with Karl Penwalski. She refused to see that the man she married was not the man she was living with. Karen couldn’t not see it. Her father had changed. Karen couldn’t put her finger on it, but she knew it was something awful, so she stayed away from him.

The distance Karen maintained between herself and her father was mirrored in her relationships with classmates and teachers. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to be alone. It was more like she didn’t want to have people in her life who expected closeness from her. It wasn’t until much too late that Karen realized she had avoided making friends because she was afraid that real friends would want to see where she lived and possibly meet her parents.
When she went to college, Karen lived away from home but told herself that now she had no time for friends. She took on a double major, Business Finance and Commercial Art. She pushed herself hard and spent all of her spare time studying. She needed an excuse to stay alone because by then, she had no concept of how friends were made.
Karen’s whole social life consisted of phone conversations and emails with her mother and passing weather updates shared with the cashiers at the grocery store she frequented.
Karen insisted that all she needed was to get through college and make something of herself. There would be plenty of time for relationships later. What really mattered was being able to take care of herself so she wouldn’t have to go back home. Karen loved her mother very much, but she had no intention of going back to live in that house.
To that end, Karen had been well on her way when she met Mark.

Mark Noland was one year away from his Masters in Sociology when they met. Karen was only a junior. Mark was strong willed and full of himself. He was good looking and popular and accustomed to getting his own way. He wasn’t about to take “no” from shy, little Karen Penwalski the art student, and somehow, Mark had gotten it into his mind that she was what he wanted. It was her shy loneliness that had drawn Mark to Karen. He wanted to help her…see her achieve her full potential.
Apparently, Mark noticed Karen on campus one day. She was sitting alone reading under a tree. He spent the rest of that week trying to find out who she was and where she lived. He called her relentlessly, sent her flowers and singing telegrams until finally, Karen agreed to go out with him. She made the stipulation that if she went on the date; he had to leave her alone. She couldn’t handle the stress of being courted.
They were going to a theater production on campus, and Mark made a big deal about telling Karen that his favorite color was red and that she should be sure and dress up for their fancy evening out. Karen didn’t want to try too hard lest Mark should think she wanted to impress him, so she dressed down. She wore an old dress. It was loose fitting, plain, straight, and navy blue. It had no collar and long straight sleeves. Karen wore no jewelry, and her shoes were extremely unimaginative. She wore her normally full bodied, naturally curly hair pulled back into a pony tail that was so tight it hurt her scalp when she raised her eyebrows.
Mark came to the door wearing a black tux with a red bow tie and red cummerbund. He was pressed, jelled and perfumed to perfection, and it was shamelessly obvious that he was disappointed with Karen’s Mary Jane look. He stood there on the porch with his long stemmed, red roses, looking stupefied. Then he laughed and said, “Oh, I get it. You really have a mind of your own. Don’t you Karen?”
Karen didn’t smile at that. She didn’t like being treated like an amusing pet. Of course, she had a mind of her own! She was tempted to shut the door in his face and go back to her drawing (there were a lot of much more useful things she could be doing with her time). Then Mark said, “Well, I win anyway. There’s nothing you could do to make yourself look less than beautiful. I’d still want to take you out even if you were wearing a potato sack and you blackened out your teeth.”
Karen found herself laughing in spite of herself, and it felt good. So they went out, and to Karen’s surprise, she had a good time. Somewhere during the evening, her nervousness and her need to stay so heavily guarded slipped away, and she was able to relax. It was like a sigh of relief.
So this was dating.
They had dinner at a restaurant that Karen had never heard of. It was French, and she couldn’t even pronounce the name of the restaurant let alone the entrees, so of course, Mark had to order for her, but he did it very kindly.
During the meal, they talked about life and the state of the planet, and Karen found herself feeling comfortable with Mark in a way she hadn’t felt comfortable with anyone for what seemed like forever. There were no sparks or anything, but Karen thought it might be okay to see Mark again and maybe develop what would be her first close friendship in almost ten years.

When they got back to Karen’s apartment, Mark rushed out of the car to open the door for Karen and walked her to the door. He took her by the hand and forced something like, “I had a really great time, and I’d like to do it again sometime soon.” At this point, he seemed more nervous than Karen felt.
“So did I…would you like to come in?”
Mark was obviously surprised (he didn’t know the date had gone that well), but he was quick to accept. Karen told him to make himself at home. She was going to put on a pot of coffee, and they could talk some more. She was planning to talk to him about being her very good friend and nothing more, at least for now.
When she got into the kitchen, Karen saw that the red voice message light on her phone was flashing, so she pushed the blue “play” button and waited.
“Karen, this is your Aunt Kelly. I have some news. I’m at the house in Boston. Call me…..beeeep.”
Karen’s heart sank and started pounding hard in the pit of her stomach. She knew that something terrible must have happened to her parents, or one of them would have called.
Kelly was her father’s sister, and at one time had been very close to Karen’s family, but something happened to that relationship when they moved to Boston. Her father didn’t have time for anyone in his family anymore and that included Aunt Kelly and both sets of Karen’s grandparents.
Karen had almost forgotten her aunt existed. Now, she was in Boston. It had to be bad news. Maybe there was a fire or an accident with the car. Both of her parents could be in the hospital…or worse. It could be anything. Karen knew she would have to make the call and find out, but she didn’t want to be alone when she did it. She thought for a moment, and then Karen made the worse decision of her life.
“Mark, could you come in here for a minute?” Her voice was trembling.
Mark could see that something was terribly wrong, and his face lit up a little in spite of himself.
“What is it?”
“Something’s happened with my family, and I need you to be here when I make this call…you know, moral support.”
Mark came over and stood close to Karen, and when she finished dialing, he took her hand and held it.

Halfway through the first ring, Aunt Kelly picked up on the other end.
“Oh, Karen, it’s you.” She sounded like she was trying to stop crying. “I hate to tell you this over the phone, but there’s no other way.”
“Okay.” Karen squeezed Mark’s hand.
“Your father has had an aneurysm in his brain. It was fatal.” Kelly was crying again.
Karen felt guilty, but more than that, she felt relieved. She had never wished her father dead, but her mother was her best friend. If she was okay, then Karen would be okay.
“What about my mother?” Not thinking to hide her lack of concern for Aunt Kelly’s brother.
“This is very hard, Karen.”
“What?” Karen’s heart was pounding, but it seemed to be skipping beats. Her knees gave a little, and her weight shifted so that Mark was partially supporting her.
“The doctors don’t know how to explain it.”
“Just tell me.” Beat…Beat…Skip…Beat.
“Maryanne found your father, and somehow…she…just stopped breathing.” Aunt Kelly was really crying now. Karen had a hard time understanding her, but somehow she got the message.
“Your mother suffocated. She’s dead.”
“I have to go now.” Karen said.
“Karen, Honey, wai…”
But it was too late. Karen had already hung up.
Her mind was spinning, and nothing made sense, but Mark was there, and he stayed with her that whole night.

The next morning, Mark made Karen’s flight arrangements. He drove her to the airport and made sure she got off okay. Then, he went back and watered her plants and cleaned house. The day after that, Mark hired some people in Karen’s classes to get the lecture notes for her.
He had been taking care of Karen ever since.
After the death of her parents, Karen fell into a deep depression. She suffered from nightmares and insomnia. Eventually, feelings of guilt and despair overwhelmed Karen, and she tried to kill herself with sleeping pills.
Mark, who was now calling himself Karen’s boyfriend, found her passed out in the bath tub. He rushed her to the hospital and vowed to always be there for her after that. At the time, that promise sounded pretty good to Karen. It was nice having someone say they loved her, even if they really didn’t love her at all. Mark was in love with Karen’s need.
The year that Karen tried to kill herself, two years after the call from Aunt Kelly, Mark proposed. Karen accepted, and six months later, they were married. Karen started having more and more nightmares after that.

In the dreams, Karen saw her mother lying on the big, brass bed, her whole body covered in large, black, crawling flies. The room was filled with the sound of their buzzing. Karen’s father was standing over her mother’s head. He was laughing. He turned to Karen, who was standing in the doorway, and opened his mouth. It was unnaturally wide, and from it, a swarm of flies flew out in a gust toward Karen. She couldn’t run or look away, and the flies attacked her. Then they became her, taking over her whole mind.
In the dreams, it seemed like forever, and when Karen woke up, she was choking.
Karen had been to a number of psychiatrists about her dreams, and of course, her husband, the social worker, was always trying to help her. He said he was trying to help anyway.
Karen had the dream every night sometimes for weeks at a time, and during that time, she was always tired and edgy and more depressed than ever. She didn’t want to do anything or go anywhere, and Mark would have to take care of her. He did everything. He cooked. He cleaned. He even had neighbors stop by to check on her during the day. Never mind if it was completely humiliating for Karen. She needed to be monitored.

Now, Karen was tired of being taken care of. She wanted someone who would take her seriously and believe in her. She needed a friend and, try though she might to explain these things to Mark, he couldn’t let himself hear her. He needed someone to take care of, and every time Karen tried to gain independence, Mark had to sabotage it.
Sometimes, when Karen didn’t have the dream for a long time, she felt human and hopeful. She felt like she could finally do something with her life. She started drawing again and sending images of her portfolio to prospective clients. Sometimes, when she felt good like that, Mark would sweetly remind her of her situation.
“Karen, you’re pushing yourself too hard. You’re just going to wear yourself out and start having those dreams again.”
And you know what? It was always very soon after, that Karen started having those dreams again.

This time was the final straw. Karen sent some drawings off to an advertising company in Philadelphia. They were some of the best she’d ever done. They were so good that they made it to the inbox of the woman in charge a Ms. Silvia Yearwood. She wanted Karen to take on some projects for them.
It would have been the best news of Karen’s life, but Karen never got to talk to Silvia. Mark answered the phone while his little wife was in the shower. Karen came out just in time to hear Mark telling Ms. Yearwood that Karen wasn’t really interested in the job, any jobs for that matter. She only wanted to see if her work was good. You see, she’d been having problems with low self-esteem lately. “Thank you very much.”
Mark would make sure Karen got the message. It was sure to make her feel much, much better.
Karen was leaving…tonight.

CHAPTER FOUR
November 3, Year Two
Heidi Martin is a walker. It is her commitment to fitness. She walks seven miles every morning, from the house in town where she lives with her parents, out to the Thompson place on the west side and back.
Today, as always, she has her mini-headphones up to her ears and is walking in tempo to the Beatles and singing along. “She loves you, Yeah…Yeah…Yeah.”
As she walks, Heidi swings her arms back and forth to keep her heart rate up. The cold air feels nice on her heat flushed cheeks. A leaf from nowhere blows into her face and sticks there. It starts to snow.
Heidi has her music turned up so loud that she can’t hear the footsteps coming from behind her. She reaches absentmindedly to brush the leaf off of her face. She doesn’t even slow down. The leaf doesn’t move at all when she touches it. It seems to be glued there. She takes the glove off of her right hand, and all of a sudden, it seems much colder out, colder and much darker. Heidi thinks the sun has gone behind a cloud. Her hand feels frozen stiff. The temperature has dropped about thirty degrees. She moves her fingers a little (it hurts) and brings her stiff hand up to her face. She slips the fingernail of her index finger under a corner of the leaf and tries to pull it off. The leaf gives a little, but then, Heidi’s fingernail tears off down to the cuticle. She screams, and dense, purplish blood drips onto the now thick layer of snow.
The Beatles are still singing. “Please, please me, whoah yeah, as I please you…” Time seems to be racing by. Heidi stops screaming and squeezes her hurt finger with her gloved left hand, and white hot pain shoots through her arm up to her shoulder. The worst of it only lasts a minute. Then she feels numb except for the throbbing pain in her finger and the place where the frozen leaf still clings to her cheek.
After a little bit, Heidi holds up her injured hand and looks at it. She blinks her eyes in disbelief. The nail has grown back miraculously, only now, it is long and golden. Blood is still seeping out from around the cuticle. Heidi is drowned in a dark feeling of apprehension and terror. It seems to have infested her soul. She screams, “Help me! Someone, help me!” into the cold and hears her voice echoing for a long time afterwards. “Elp…elp…elp…eeee…un…uunnn…elp…elp…eeeeee.”
First Heidi’s throat is cold, sore, and dry like dusty earth. Then, she is choking on something thick that tastes like blood. She stands there coughing and spitting and realizes that her right hand is moving about on its own. She can’t control it. The hand is swirling down at her side like a little ballerina and brushing against her sweat pants.
Now, Heidi is walking again, but she doesn’t know when she started or why, and her left hand is swinging rhythmically (keeping her heart rate up) while her right hand dances Swan Lake.
“Last night I said these words to my girl. I said you never even try girl.”
“Heidi’s dancing hand floats up to her face, and the long, golden fingernail slides behind the frozen, red leaf, catching it. The fingernail is yanked forward ripping the leaf from the pain flushed cheek. Along with this small piece of tree, comes a good sized chunk of Heidi’s skin.
Heidi opens her mouth to scream, and a torrential flood of purple blood pours from her mouth. Then, a foul smelling wind blows hundreds of leaves onto her. They are all over her sticking to her skin and clothes, like acid and glue.
One by one, the gold fingernail rips the leaves off with pieces of Heidi always attached, and soon, Heidi falls like autumn waste, bleeding from everywhere…completely raw. Time rushes by.
The Beatles sing, “She was a day tripper, one way ticket, yeah!”
Heidi is dead.
The snow keeps falling, and the leaves blow away.

CHAPTER FIVE
October 10, Ten Years Ago
Last night’s rain knocked the leaves from the trees and made them into a wet blanket on the huge lawn. The maple trees that yesterday were heavy with big, orange, red and yellow leaves now looked skeletal and haunted. The bright sun made the water on the leaves glisten, probably to the delight of young romantics somewhere, but it hurt Mahogany’s old eyes. God, she hated being old. Everything hurt, almost all the time.
How things had changed. No one would ever believe that she used to be the woman that she was twenty years ago. The woman Mahogany used to be was killed by her children.

Mahogany grew up as the only child of loving parents Cynthia and Milton Reid. She was used to life on a pedestal. Even her name was given to her so that she might stand out from all the little Suzies, Anns, and Vickis at private school.
Mahogany’s parents loved her as no child before her had ever been loved. They taught her everything and took her everywhere. They protected her and cared for her until they were too old to do it anymore, and then, Mahogany took care of them.
There was no way her parents would have been allowed to die in any old folks home. Mahogany made sure they had the best nurses and care takers that money could buy, and she spent time with them and held their hands when they were sick. When Milton and Cynthia died five years apart, Mahogany was there, and she mourned them. She wished her own children had grown up more like herself.

Mahogany had three children: two boys, Matthew and Brandon, and one girl, Charlotte. Well, they were hardly boys and girls anymore. They were all in their fifties. They were old enough to squander their mother’s savings and put her away in this mortuary before their father’s body was even cold.
Oh, Walter.
Walter Fisher was (next to her own father) the most genuine man Mahogany had ever known. He was like a story book hero. Mahogany missed him so much she didn’t think she could go on sometimes.
How she and Walter could have ended up with such horrible offspring was a real mystery.

When Mahogany met Walter he was working as a marketing specialist at her family’s appliance manufacturing company back in Boston.
One day, Mahogany came to steal her father away for lunch. When she came into the room, she found him in a meeting with a younger man she had never met. Milton stood up to greet his daughter and gave her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. The young man, who turned out to be Walter, stood up nervously and straightened his tie, and Mahogany looked at him closely for the first time.
Mahogany stared at Walter with his curly red hair and green eyes and fell in love. It was something she would have never thought possible, but there she was, in love.
Walter had a muscular face that was softened by a light dusting of freckles and an open smile. Mahogany had never seen anyone that striking before, but it wasn’t his looks that Mahogany fell in love with. The man had a presence, a substance that seemed to fill the whole room.
Walter joined Mahogany and her father for lunch that day, and their courtship began the following week. They were a perfect match. They liked the same music and movies. They had the same politics and the same hopes for the future.
It was easy for Mahogany to understand why Walter and her father hit it off so well. The two men were alike in so many important ways. Both were charming, intelligent, compassionate men of impeccable integrity.
Mahogany’s parents thought the world of Walter. Everyone agreed that Mahogany Reid and Walter Fisher were made for each other.
One year after they met, Mahogany and Walter got married, and ten years after that, Mahogany’s father made Walter acting president of the Company. During those ten years, Mahogany got her degree and started working alongside Walter. For a few years, Mahogany and Walter were the perfect team and Reid Appliances grew in size and impact.
Mahogany and her husband had a plan, so when the time was right, Mahogany got pregnant, and one by one, right on schedule, she and Walter had their three children.

When the children were born, everything changed. Mahogany concentrated on being a mom instead of being a business woman because she thought that was what children needed. It was what she’d had after all, and look how well she had turned out.
Mahogany loved having children, and she tried to teach them the things she was taught. She wanted her children to have everything, and that they did. They went to the best schools and traveled with their parents to Europe and all the better islands. They took every kind of lesson they ever expressed any interest at all in, and they were never pushed to do anything more than their best.
Unfortunately, although Mahogany taught her children almost everything they needed to know, somehow, she missed teaching them to appreciate what they had. She didn’t realize she was raising three total brats until it was too late. They stopped coming home from school on the holidays. Their visits were replaced by calls asking for money to go on ski trips or cruises. Her children had mastered the art of throwing incredible tantrums whenever they were denied anything.
Before Mahogany knew what happened, all of her children had gone off and gotten married and had families of their own. Now, they were divorced with child support and alimonies to pay. Not a one of them had the means or any intention to support themselves in the manner to which they had become accustomed. They thought Mahogany and Walter owed them their whole lives because, as children, they had given their parents such joy.
Mahogany and Walter both dreamed of having one of the children take over the business for them some day, but none of them were interested. They all wanted glamour jobs.

Brandon, the oldest, was in a rock band that Mahogany wasn’t impressed with. He had been playing for over thirty years. Every couple of years or so, the band’s name would change, and some or all of the people would change (usually replacing old friends for young hopefuls), but it never got much better. Brandon didn’t seem to understand about commitment or sacrifice. Mahogany wasn’t even sure he practiced regularly. Brandon played the piano and wrote songs that had stupid, sappy lyrics. He never got any great gigs or contracts or any real reason to hope at all, but Brandon was apparently determined to keep trying until he made it big. Mahogany didn’t see how he ever could make it. He was just too old.
Charlotte was working as an actress on a soap opera called “The Turning Tide.” Mahogany thought it should have been called “The Turning Stomach”. Charlotte made pretty good money, but she spent much more than that on drugs and jewelry. Mahogany watched the soaps at the home every once in a while, and she thought that some of the actors and actresses were very talented. Her daughter was not one of the talented ones though, and Mahogany couldn’t understand how she managed to keep her job.
Charlotte played a woman named Chansey Blake. She was one of those spoiled selfish people who would do anything to get what they wanted no matter who it hurt. It was amazing to Mahogany that Charlotte wasn’t even talented enough to play herself after thirty years of acting.
Matthew was the baby, and he was the one living closest to reality. He was the only one of her three children who had managed to complete a college education. He majored in English and was forever working on his great novel. Mahogany had read some of Matthew’s work, and she thought he had some skill, but most of his writing seemed too clinical to be entertaining. He really had no business writing fiction. He would have made a good text book writer or maybe even a journalist, but Matthew thought the glory was in writing long fiction, so that’s what he was going to do, no matter how long it took him or how much it cost his parents.
The sad part about it was that all three of Mahogany’s children were quite smart. They were just the kind of people who could have been successful in business, but not one of them would have any part of that. The Fisher offspring thought they were talented. Mahogany blamed herself. She had told them dozens of times throughout their childhoods that each of them could be whatever they set their minds to. Everybody’s mom tells them that, but only spoiled, rich kids believed it.

Since Mahogany and her husband knew that someday they would be too old to run the company themselves, and none of the children wanted it, they set out to find and train a suitable manager. They found a woman in their employ that was like the daughter they always wished they’d had. Her name was Kyla Lassimore. She was very young still, only twenty-five, but she was intelligent and ethical, and the people who worked with her had a great deal of respect for her. Kyla had lost her own parents at a young age, and she came to treat Mahogany and Walter more like parents than their own children ever did.
It didn’t take long before Mahogany and Walter felt comfortable enough with the way the company was being run that they stopped coming in to check. They were getting old, and wanted to spend their remaining years enjoying each other and everything they had. They went to movies and out to lunch. They visited museums and theaters and sat around the house together while Kyla and the people she trusted ran Reid Appliances.
Things went along pretty well that way for about the next seventeen years or so. Then, Walter fell asleep in the bath tub and drowned. He was eighty-six years old.
Mahogany found him herself, and she would never forget how she felt in that moment when she realized he was dead. It was the most alone she had ever been. She called the children, but none of them could (would) make it home for the funeral. It was infuriating. They had absolutely no respect.
Two years later, Mahogany had her own heart attack. She fell down in the kitchen one night when she was up making some cocoa to help herself sleep. She fractured her hip in the fall. There was some brain damage, and afterwards, Mahogany couldn’t seem to get her words to make sense coming out of her mouth, or even on paper. Everything she said sounded like complete dribble, and she knew it. At least her mind was sound.
When her children were notified about their mother’s condition, they immediately started fighting over who got what. They agreed only long enough to have Mahogany locked away at Meadow Brook where they didn’t visit. They only checked in periodically to make sure their old mother wasn’t dead yet.
Somehow the three brats got a judge to give them permission to release all of the servants and sell the house. They were supposedly using the money from the sale of the three million dollar estate to pay for their mother’s expenses in this three hundred dollar a month roach motel. Mahogany often wondered how much of that money went to pay the crooked judge who gave up the nails to put into her coffin. It was obvious that her children were not at all concerned about Mahogany’s welfare.
The one good thing was that none of the younger Fisher’s ever paid any attention to the business. They knew they would continue getting their allowances as long as Mahogany was alive, and they thought that once she died, they would simply sell the business and split the money, but that wasn’t going to happen. The children would not inherit the company because it didn’t mean anything to them, and it had meant the world to Mahogany’s father and to Walter and herself. Mahogany’s children would have a big surprise when they found out about the will.
Mahogany knew her children would try to contest the will, but it was drawn up thirty-two years ago, and every year right up until Walter’s death, Mahogany and Walter had updated and resigned it in front of their family physician and their lawyer. There was no way that will could be changed without Mahogany doing it. Those three confident idiots didn’t even know they should be asking her to change it. They wouldn’t find out until it was too late. Then they would have to learn to live without their little allowances.
It was kind of funny really, them waiting on pins and needles for their old mother to die, so they could sell the business, but it still hurt. It hurt in a bitter way that made Mahogany hate her children and blame them for everything that was bad in her life. Mahogany thought she would give everything just to see their faces when that will was read.
It wouldn’t be much longer now. She was ninety-two and getting weaker every day. No one expected her to last through the year.

The staff at the nursing home treated Mahogany as if she was already dead. She was no longer a person to them, but she still had her wits about her. Over the last year, she had gotten so her speech made a lot more sense. She had been working at it ever since her attack, and recently she’d had a break through. Unfortunately, everyone was so comfortable ignoring her that even when she did make sense, nobody listened.
Sometimes, Mahogany would sit in her wheel chair and pretend she was having lunch with her mom and dad and Walter. Her mother would tell her how pretty she was, and Walter would squeeze her hand and say, “Isn’t she though.” When she thought about old times, she could be happy for a minute, but someone always came to check her blood pressure or take her to eat, and the moment would be ruined.
Now, they had her sitting on the lawn among the leaves, surrounded by senile, old, dying people. They treated her as if she were one of them, not like the daughter of Milton and Cynthia Reid, not like a woman who should be sitting in a mansion with servants and private nurses. She was not one of those pathetic wretches…Well, perhaps she was a little like them. Obviously, their children didn’t give a damn about them either.

CHAPTER SIX
December 25, Year Three
Michael Tibbets is an unusual boy. Everybody says so. He is quiet and withdrawn, and some folks say Michael’s bus isn’t making all of the stops. His parents, Matt and Vicki, have plans for him though. They want him to be a politician when he grows up. They think small town boys make the best presidents because their hearts are in the right places. A lot of people think Matt and Vicki are running their engines on low fuel too. Poor Michael doesn’t have much of a chance as far as most people in Learning are concerned.
Matt and Vicki have the boy’s whole life planned out for him. He’s only ten, and they already know what college they want him to go to. They don’t have much money, but Michael is smart. He’ll get scholarships. He’ll go to Princeton and major in Political Science and Law. He will work as a lawyer for a few years and get a reputation as a stand-up guy, and then he will start working for the Republican Party. The Tibbets are always telling everyone about Michael’s great future, and everybody is pretty much sick of hearing it.
Matt and Vicki school their son constantly in the fine art of diplomacy, and they are always asking him hypothetical questions like, “Suppose you were having a dinner party, and the prime minister of Great Britain and the ambassador from Sweden were both there. What kind of seating arrangements would you make?” For Michael, every day is a test of some kind or another.
Vicki and Matt invite other kids over to play with their son. They hover around the children and watch them to make sure that Michael is getting along and taking charge. As a matter of fact, Michael is so quiet mainly because he’s afraid of having his parents correct him. It seems to him that they correct everything he ever says. They want him to learn to take charge of a situation and a group of people, but they won’t even let him alone to play with his friends. It’s crazy.
Michael doesn’t have the slightest bit of enthusiasm about being a public figure. The thought terrifies him. When his parents made him run for hall monitor this past fall, Michael prayed he wouldn’t be elected. If he were elected, people would be looking at him all the time, and much worse, he’d have to talk to teachers and the principle. Michael needn’t have worried though. He didn’t have a snow ball’s chance of winning that election. You see, at Learning Elementary, Hall Monitor is a rather prestigious office, and nobody likes Michael Tibbets. All the kids think he’s weird. He never says anything to anybody unless he absolutely has to. He just stands around listening to other people’s conversations, like a secret agent or something. Then, if somebody says something to him, he walks away. That type of thing can give a person the creeps.
Michael tries to tell his parents all the time that he doesn’t want to be president. He wants to be a farmer on a big farm all by himself with no one to talk to but the animals, but when he talks to his parents, his father always says something like, “I didn’t know I wanted to be a professional ball player when I was your age, but then, when I was your age, I didn’t know how much those guys took in. I could have made it too. I was the best damn quarterback this town has ever seen. I just didn’t think it was important back then, so I let my talent go to waste. You too have a special talent, Michael. You can lead people. You just can’t know what’s best for you right now. That’s why God gave you your mother and me. We know what you don’t.”
Last night was Christmas Eve. Matt and Vicki gave Michael a little assignment. Since he knows there is no Santa Claus now, and there is no reason to write him a letter, Matt and Vicki told Michael to write a letter to the president. They know that sometimes, when the president gets an especially good or touching letter, he reads it at a press conference, and the little boy or girl who wrote the letter can have a moment in the spotlight. Something like that could be really good for Michael’s career.
At first, they let Michael compose his own letter, but after reading it, Matt and Vicki thought it needed a little spark, so they fixed it for him. Then they made Michael rewrite the letter, so it would be in his own handwriting. Michael has beautiful penmanship. This is what the letter says,
“Dear President Saunders,
You are my favorite person in the whole world. I want to be just like you when I grow up. Our country is lucky to have such a smart and compassionate man to run it. I hope that when I’m president, I can do as good a job as you are doing. Sometimes, I wonder how a man gets to be president of a great country like this one with so many people in it, but Mom always says that God steps in sometimes to make sure things go right. I think God stepped in at some point during your lifetime and told you what you needed to do. You had a duty to protect this country and you didn’t run away from it. I won’t run away from my duty either.
You are a good man President Saunders, and I’m glad you have left such noble footsteps for me to follow in.
Yours Truly,
Michael R. Tibbets (ten years old)”
All Michael’s first letter said was “Hi Mr. President. You seem like a nice man, and I think you are doing a pretty okay job at the White House. I hope you have a happy New Year.”
Matt and Vicki didn’t think that was special enough to get the president’s attention.
Michael doesn’t want the president’s attention. He doesn’t want anybody’s attention. He just wants to crawl into the woodwork and hide.
Michael is awake early this morning. A branch from the tree outside is scraping on his window. When he woke up, Michael thought the branch was a skeleton hand. He sat in bed watching it for a very long time. It was terrifying.
Michael can’t seem to get back to sleep even now that he realizes the hand was just a tree, so he comes downstairs and turns on the Christmas tree lights. It’s nice being alone. Sometimes, Michael thinks about running away so he can be himself, away from his domineering parents, but so far he hasn’t thought of any place to go.
As he looks at the lights, it seems to Michael that they start to move around on the tree. It’s beautiful, like a dance. Michael thinks it must be some kind of Christmas magic. He doesn’t want to ruin it, so he doesn’t move. He sits there on the floor in front of the tree quietly watching in wonder.
After a minute, there is a knock at the front door, and the lights stop moving. Michael isn’t really sure if they ever moved at all. He is feeling very sleepy all of a sudden.
Michael waits to see if one of his parents will come down and answer the door. He is a little afraid of doing it himself. It isn’t the time that people usually go around knocking on doors. Maybe it’s the skeleton from outside his window.
Couldn’t be
That was only a tree.
Michael gets up from his spot and walks slowly toward the door. He can still hear the knocking. He reaches out and puts his hand on the doorknob. It is freezing, burning cold. Michael tries to pull his hand away, but it has frozen to the doorknob. He tugs on it once, and it hurts him so badly that he cries out. His parents don’t wake up. Michael tugs at his hand again and this time, it comes off. There is a round, purplish bruise in the center of his hand that looks like a clay mold of the door, right down to the button you push in to lock it. Michael looks at the bruise dumbfounded. It hurts so much that Michael thinks he will pass out.
All of a sudden, the door flies open and Michael feels someone pushing him from behind. They push him out of the house and into the cold. It feels like twenty below. Michael turns around quickly, but the door slams shut in his face. He reaches for the knob with the hand that isn’t bruised, and tries to turn it, but the door won’t budge. Michael has no trouble getting this hand back from the frozen doorknob, but immediately after retrieving it, he feels the blood draining out of it. There is no cut or broken skin, and Michael isn’t sure where the blood is going, but he can see his hand becoming pale and it feels like the blood is running into his elbow.
Michael looks around. It’s still dark out, and there is no one to be seen. None of the neighbors are up yet. Michael starts pounding on his front door but no one will answer. He begins to scream and then to crying. Still no one pays him any mind. There is nothing he can do but pound harder and harder on the door with his throbbing hand and wait for his parents to wake up. He can’t go running around town in his pajamas.
It is so cold, and Michael has on such skimpy clothes that he is already freezing after only a few minutes out. He doesn’t have any shoes on, and there is nothing on his head. Every few seconds, the wind blows like an ice whip against his frozen body. His pounding is getting weaker and quieter all the time. Maybe, he really is going to freeze to death on his own front steps.
Michael is in mid-pound when the wind blows hard again. Only this time it’s a warm wind, a miraculous change. It feels alive somehow and good. Michael stops pounding and stands there for a minute enjoying the warmth. It seems to last for almost two minutes, and for those two minutes, Michael is as happy as he has ever been. He feels cleansed of the sadness and insecurities that have been his companions for so long. He feels safe and perfect.
The warm wind stops as suddenly as it began, and Michael is hit by a freezing blast of cold that shoots through him like a dagger. He tries to brace himself against the house, but the wind is too strong. It pushes him away from his house and down the street. Michael’s feet are barely touching the ground, and his arms are flailing around at his sides. He has lost all control of his body. It feels like there really is someone in the wind pushing him forward.
Michael feels his body going stiff. It feels like his blood has gotten so thick and slowed down so much that it isn’t making it to some parts of his body. He can feel the skin on his hands and feet crystalizing, and his face wants to crack into little pieces.
He is vaguely aware of the blood that is trickling onto his chin (from his broken lip) and freezing there. He is a statue, a dying statue.
The freezing wind pushes Michael all the way out to the Hopper place about four miles away from home. A lake’s worth of water has collected out in the field behind the house from all the rain this past spring. People have been calling it “Hopper Pond”. It has been frozen solid for months now. The Hopper kids and some of the other kids from town have been skating on it since October. Michael has been out here a couple of times himself. He never stays long though. He knows no one really wants him around.
The wind pushes Michael right into the center of the pond and then stops suddenly. Michael tries to move himself off the ice, but it’s too slick, and his feet hurt so badly he can’t do much of anything. His body is almost completely frozen, but he isn’t numb. He can feel the ice crystals forming in his blood and scraping their way through his veins. It’s a pain he has never imagined.
Michael wants to scream or at least cry but is much too weak for that. He can’t do anything but stand there on the ice, hurting and watching what happens to him.
The warm wind starts to blow again, only this time, it doesn’t make Michael feel safe. There is something evil in this wind, something wet and slimy and old, and he can feel it sliding over him. It makes him swoon.
Michael hears a cracking sound that seems to fill up his whole brain. The ice is cracking! It’s thawing.
He tries again to get moving, but now an army of hands are holding him to that spot, dead center of the pond. Michael plunges down into the icy, cold waters. When he hits, his body starts to listen to him again. He screams and splashes and tries to swim. He knows the water can’t be as deep as it seems, but he can’t stop panicking.
Something on the bottom of the pond catches Michael’s leg while he thrashes about and pulls him down under. The pond is freezing again. He is trapped.
Later that morning, after the Hopper kids have opened their Christmas presents, they will go out to do some skating. There will be a thin layer of snow covering the frozen pond. The children will skate around for a long time before anyone becomes aware of little Michael Tibbets totally blanketed by the ice. It will be Kathy Hopper, the seven year old, who sees him first. She will catch a glimpse of his hand under the snow. She won’t scream because at first, she won’t understand exactly what she is looking at. She’ll start brushing the snow away, and pretty soon, the other kids will help her.
When enough snow is cleared, the children will see Michael frozen solid with only his pajamas on, and his bloody face frozen into a grimace of complete terror. All the Hopper children will have nightmares that Christmas night, and on and off for the rest of their lives.
Matt and Vicki will believe the reason Michael killed himself that night was that they were pushing him too hard. Some of the others in Learning will believe that as well, even though it won’t make any sense that the pond thawed and re-froze that night. It will be easier for them to believe that Michael killed himself than to believe that something evil came into his house and killed him on Christmas.
Matt and Vicki will feel so guilty about what they’ve done to their son that they will send his letter off to the president. They will even send the first one, the one that Michael wrote himself, and you know what?
It won’t help.

CHAPTER SEVEN
October 10, Ten Years Ago
There was a light breeze in the air, and for a second, it turned into a strong wind and blew a few leaves into Mahogany’s lap. She wished one of the nurses would take her back inside now. She felt too cold to be outside, but no one ever asked Mahogany what she wanted. They all went on as if she were a baby only a few months old. She would spend thirty minutes outside this morning and thirty minutes this afternoon, just like all the other old fogies in wheelchairs. It didn’t matter if it was hot or cold or even if they had to wake her up and roll her out here against her will. Thirty minutes, no more and no less, this place was like prison.
Now the breeze had stopped blowing and the air was somehow heavier. It felt denser yet much drier than it had felt only moments ago, and there was electricity in this air. Mahogany could feel her remaining wisps of old lady hair tingling at scalp level. Even the tiny hairs on her arms and the back of her neck were standing on end. Something was about to happen.
Mahogany became gradually aware of a noise above her head, and she tilted her stiff neck painfully upward to see what was there. She saw clearly a helicopter flying low off in the distance. It was completely black. Even the windows seemed curtained. Mahogany couldn’t see inside, and she wondered how the pilot could see out. Maybe, he couldn’t. The helicopter kept swooping up and then down and rocking from side to side as if completely out of control.

Mahogany, along with the nurses and all the other patients who could, watched as the helicopter careened forward and then crashed all at once into the field just beyond Meadow Brook.
Seconds before it hit the ground and burst into flames, the helicopter’s black coating came off of it like a large canvas and flew toward the retirement home. It was a black cloud, and Mahogany (whose ears were still pretty good) could hear buzzing and realized before anyone else what it was.
It was a swarm of bees.
There were three nurses and three nurse’s aides, outside that morning, and they were all standing stupefied, watching the flames spread across the field. Finally, one of them went inside to call the police or something, but no one seemed to be aware of the bees that were moving toward them even faster than the fire. The buzzing was almost deafening now.
“It’s bees!” Mahogany screamed, and her voice cracked just like an old woman’s. “You have to get us inside! Killer beeeeees!”
And for the first time during her stay at Meadow Brook, everyone listened to crazy, old Mahogany Fisher. The nurses and aides all ran inside the building and began earnestly closing windows and doors.

Mahogany thought she could hear words in the buzzing. It sounded like French or Spanish, but she couldn’t make it out over the noises the old people were making, screaming and praying and moaning. Everyone knew that they had been left outside to die, while the stupidly selfish and grossly undertrained nurses protected themselves.
Sadie Anthony, whom Mahogany had never seen out of her wheelchair, stood up and started screaming. Mahogany heard the screams as shrill siren blasts that she suspected could be heard all the way to her housemate’s home in West Virginia.
Mahogany whose vision had been declining steadily since she was in her sixties could somehow see everything very clearly. It was as if her old eyes had turned into binoculars. She thought there must have been a billion bees, and she could see the stingers on every one.
Sadie was the one closest to the bees and the first to be attacked by the swarm. In seconds, her whole body was covered in black, crawling bees. Soon, only the shape of the woman could be seen as a black silhouette. She was being consumed.
Some of the old people who were able wheeled or walked over to Sadie to try and help, but soon, they too were engulfed in bees. There were more and more of them every minute. The swarm was feeding on the old people and growing stronger and more deadly.

Mahogany tried to get her arms working so that she could roll herself back to the building, but she hadn’t been able to do that in five years. There was no point, so she gave up and folded her hands onto her lap (the leaves were still there) and waited…with dignity.
After eight of her housemates had been silenced, the bees came for Mahogany. The swarm hung over her head for a moment, and she heard the voices again. Only this time, the words were English, and she understood them. Mahogany made her decision quickly. It was twenty-five minutes past ten o’clock.

The nurses had sealed themselves up in the building with the bedridden patients and other employees of Meadow Brook. Some of them were gripping cans of Black Flag and mosquito repellant, but none of the bees made it inside. It didn’t matter. Soon the whole place was up in flames.
By the time the authorities reached Meadow Brook, there was no evidence of any bees at all, and no one could understand how the fire had spread so quickly.

CHAPTER EIGHT
October 20, Ten Years Ago
Charlotte, Brandon and Matthew Fisher sat teary eyed and holding hands in the lawyer’s office.
Charlotte was wearing a black hat with a veil, a skin tight sleeveless black mini dress, black gloves that went up to her elbows and black shoes with spiked heels. She had a black hanky in her right hand and a little black purse sitting in her lap. She looked too good for a woman her age. She looked like someone who had never done an honest day’s work.
Charlotte was supposed to be the picture of the heart-broken daughter. Every so often, she dabbed at her eyes with the hanky and made a sick, sniveling noise. What an actress!
Both Matthew and Brandon were wearing tailored black suits with a splash of obnoxious color from their power ties, and both of them were wearing dark glasses. They looked more like FBI men than mourners.
None of the children knew their mother was in the room. Mahogany was like a fly on the wall.

Kyla Lassimore was the only one who seemed genuinely upset. She respected Mahogany and had driven out to Shilo once a month, like clockwork to visit Mahogany at Meadow Brook. Kyla listened to Mahogany when she spoke. Kyla was a true friend.
Kyla had even tried at one point to get Mahogany released into her care. Kyla lacked the authority to do it, and Mahogany’s children seemed to be set on having her die at Meadow Brook.
Mahogany saw how her three brats looked at Kyla. They thought they were so superior to her because of their good looks and fancy lives, but Kyla, who was short and scrawny, with a badly pock marked face and thick horned rimmed glasses, looked better to Mahogany than anyone in the room.

Mahogany didn’t recognize the lawyer. He must have joined the firm after she was put into the home. He looked to be about fifty or sixty and very somber and professional. He was sitting behind a big, oak desk with his hands folded on top of some papers. The name plate in front of him told everyone he was Harry Walker. After a minute of surveying Mahogany’s mourners, Harry cleared his throat.
“Welcome, all of you, and let me say that I am very sorry about your loss. I’m told that Mahogany Fisher was a wonderful woman. Everyone here at B.N.H. says she was always very….”
“Skip the salute and get on with it, Harry,” Matthew cut in. “You know my plane for London leaves in two hours.”
So much for mourning
No one was holding hands now.
“Very well.”
Harry was obviously annoyed by Matthew’s lack of respect. He picked up the papers in front of him and tapped them onto the desk a few times so that the edges were lined up.

“Before I begin reading the will, it is my duty to inform you that both Mahogany and Walter Fisher underwent psychiatric evaluations at the time they signed this will thirty years ago. They were both deemed competent to make it. This…” He tapped the pages on his desk again, “Will stand up in any court.”
Charlotte let out a big yawn and looked at her watch. Brandon adjusted his sunglasses.
“I will begin now.”
Harry cleared his throat again.

“We, Walter Fisher and Mahogany Fisher, both being of sound mind and body, do hereby bequeath our last will and testament. Upon the death of either one of us, all money, property and investments will revert solely to the remaining spouse to control as she or he sees fit. When neither spouse remains, all cash, savings and investments shall be turned over to charities that specifically aid the poor and homeless in the United States. The designation of charities to be granted funds shall be determined by the law firm of Baker, Norbert and Hobbs. All monies must be completely disbursed within five years of the death of the surviving spouse.”
Harry looked up from his papers to see the three children with their mouths hanging open. Kyla was smiling for the first time. She did it openly, and Harry smiled back a little in spite of himself. When he looked back to the three children, he was caught off guard by the boldness of Brandon’s harsh glare.
“Surely, you knew of your parent’s wishes in this matter?” Harry knew very well that this was the first any of them had heard of this.
“Get on with it!” Charlotte snapped. “What about the business?”
“Very well,” Harry said patiently.
Mahogany thought she would cherish this moment forever. It seemed almost worth everything.
“The estate at 358 Fairview Drive in Boston, Massachusetts and all the property therein is to be sold and profits received used to pay outstanding bills. Any extra funds shall be divided evenly among our three children, Brandon, Matthew and Charlotte. The sale and dispersal of funds shall be supervised by a representative of the law firm, Baker, Norbert and Hobbs. Hopefully, our children will use the money to secure their futures.”
Mahogany knew that her children, with the help of their crooked judge, had already sold everything from the house they didn’t want and had probably already spent the money. She had to smile again.

“What about the business?” Matthew asked testily.
“That’s next,” Harry said. “The business, Reid Family Appliances which was owned solely by Mahogany and Walter Fisher is to remain in operation under the supervision of its president, Kyla R. Lassimore, a very fair and trustworthy woman. We leave it to her to set up the system we have discussed on many occasions by which the profits made by the company will be shared by the employees of the company based upon their individual contributions. The company is not to be sold for at least three years, and then only if a majority of current company employees are in agreement and sign a decree stating such. Ms. Lassimore will be responsible for running the company and delegating authority for as long as she wants the job. Her successor shall be voted in by a majority vote of all employees and can be removed by same. Methods for electing and impeaching presidents of the company should be drawn up by Kyla so that they are on record. If Kyla agrees to these provisions and follows them, she will, in effect, own Reid appliances.”
“Wait…just…one damn minute!” Brandon squeezed out through pursed lips. “They can’t do that! What about us? We’re their fucking children for Christ sake!
Mahogany thought her son was going to burst into tears soon, and she was ashamed of herself for bringing such a worthless lot of people into the world.

“The will mentions the three children again here,” Harry said calmly.
Brandon settled back into his chair.
“We have taken good care of our children,” Harry began, “But now that we are gone, they must take care of themselves. We gave them our whole lives, and we think that’s enough.”
Stupefied silence from all three Fisher offspring.
“No money from company profits or from the sale of Reid Family Appliances should under any circumstances whatsoever be given or loaned to any of our adult children. It is time to grow up, kids. We do this because we love you, and cutting you off represents your only chance at independence.”
At this, Charlotte simply stood up and huffed out of the room. It was a very ungraceful departure. The two boys left with a bit more dignity, but they left, and that was that.
Mahogany was satisfied. She’d had her moment and her revenge. She thought that maybe it would be enough, that it would make up for all the lies, but she had no idea.

CHAPTER NINE
April 1, Year One
Mahogany walked quickly down Learning’s main street. There were quite a few people still out and about. Some of them were talking in front of store windows, and some were just getting into their cars to go home for the night. It was only six o’clock but it was cloudy and already fairly dark. Mahogany was vaguely aware of the cold. She wasn’t wearing a jacket.
As she bustled down the sidewalk, Mahogany’s shoes made clacking sounds. Some of the people standing around seemed to almost hear them, but when they looked to see where the sound came from, they didn’t see anything and soon dismissed it. Then they didn’t hear it anymore.
When Mahogany opened the door to Learning’s only coin operated laundry, the attendant, Betty Wilson, turned to look at the door, and for a minute, thought she saw someone coming in. She blinked her eyes several times. Then she added another piece of gum to her already huge but flavorless wad and went back to her magazine.
The entire north side of the Laundromat was made of glass. The rest was chipping, yellow paint over grey concrete. Mahogany sat down with her back against the window and began to survey. There were five people in addition to the attendant in the one room facility. Mahogany could feel that the demons were pleased with themselves for landing here.

Carter and Gabrielle Taylor, the newlyweds, had the two washers in the back. They were sitting close together on a bench that faced the windows, holding hands and staring longingly into each other’s eyes. It reminded Mahogany of how she and Walter had been when they were newlyweds. Her sappy thoughts made the demons laugh, and the sound made Mahogany’s head ache.
Mrs. Conroy, who ran the grocery store on Burnham Road, had a dryer in the next row. She was heavy set and angry looking. Her large face was covered in reddish purple blotches, and she had a sparse lawn of old woman’s whiskers sprouting from her chin. She was reading through an old, beaten up Reader’s Digest and pulling at a hair that was hanging from the place where her chin and her neck came together.
Next to Mrs. Conroy was a woman Mahogany didn’t recognize. She was skinny like a pole, and her hair was bleach blonde with black roots. She was all dressed up like a cowgirl except she didn’t have a hat. She was pulling clothes out of a dryer and stuffing them into a green army bag.
A bearded man in faded jeans and a blue and black plaid shirt had the two dryers closest to the front of the room. Mahogany thought he was one of the men who worked at the guitar factory five miles out of town. The factory had about a hundred workers and probably fifteen of them lived in Learning. Mahogany thought the others lived mostly in Coeur d’ Alene.
Mahogany sat and waited with the demons. She knew they were waiting for things to quiet down out on the street, so they could get things started.
After a few minutes, the lady with the bleached hair took her bag of clothes out to her car, and Mahogany’s heart leapt because she believed the woman was going to leave and be safe. The demons grew angry, and Mahogany cringed at their uproar. She had to retreat to the place in her mind that was the quietest.

The demons had total control over Mahogany’s body because she had been foolish and given it to them. They used her as a vehicle for their evil. This was her third such mission in Learning, and her time with them had barely begun.
When the demons traveled, Mahogany tried not to see the evil things they made happen. She tried to retreat completely, but that never worked. She knew everything all the time, but there were places she could go to save herself the physical pain that came with their turbulent emotions. It was like sitting on a magic chair in the center of a room filled with lunatics. They screamed and cursed, hollering and chattering about all the evil they had done and would continue to do. The lunatics were always very close to her, so close that she could smell them. Mahogany couldn’t close her eyes or plug her ears. They leered at her and showed her the rotting, dead things in their memories.
Sometimes, Mahogany tried to talk to them. She pleaded with them not to do what she knew they had planned (to spare someone), but when Mahogany talked to them, it was as if she’d gotten out of her safe chair, and the demons could hurt her. She usually felt the pain in her head.

Mahogany felt quite well physically most of the time. She was upright and breathing better than she had in years. Her muscles were strong. She never felt tired, and her heartbeat was robust and steady as a rock. Everything was Jake except for the crawling. The demons were always crawling under her skin. She tried to get used to it, but sometimes it drove her to the absolute edge of her sanity. At those times, Mahogany thought that maybe if she joined them…became one of them, she could handle it better. But when she looked at them and thought about what they were, she realized once again that if she joined them there would be no hope for her and no end to her torment.
What was even worse than the crawling or the way the demons teased her, was the memories Mahogany had to share with them. They knew all of her memories, and she knew all of theirs. She felt all of the guilt they didn’t feel for horrible acts of torture and mutilation carried out over the centuries. She could see them in detail, and no matter how she tried to hide from it, she couldn’t make herself believe that she wasn’t a big part of that torture and evil. She was a part of it. She was the continuation of it.

The skinny blonde woman put the clothes bag into her flashy, red Camaro and got inside. She started the engine and turned on the headlights. Mahogany could feel the anger of the demons. They wanted to kill everyone, and they were going to miss one. Mahogany felt that she’d won a small victory, even if she had nothing to do with it. Her heart sank when she saw the car lights go out again. The smoke from the tail pipe petered out.
Mahogany looked over to where the woman had been doing her laundry. There was a little, white hand bag with a gold chain sitting in the yellow, plastic chair in front of dryer number two.
The woman came back inside and said a few words to Betty who had started going over receipts. The two of them giggled, and the blonde woman went and got her purse.
She waved at Betty as she pushed on the door. The door didn’t open, and Mahogany knew it was beginning.
Suddenly, all of the machines clambered to a stop, and a great rumbling filled the room. The radio, that before had been barely audible, was now extremely loud and blasting what sounded like a test of the emergency broadcast system. The water in the washing machines boiled and erupted into the room in one giant geyser blast. The dryers flew open and spit out their singed wads of clothing. The room filled with smoke.
Gabrielle and Carter screamed unison profanities. The bearded man picked up one of the wooden benches and threw it at the glass wall. The bench shattered as if it were made of thin blown glass, but the window was only dented.
Betty reached for the phone to call the police, but it burned her so badly that when she pulled away from the receiver, her hand was still smoking, and she smelled burning flesh.
Everyone was panicking now, everyone except Mrs. Conroy that is. She just sat there reading her Reader’s Digest and pulling on her chin hair as if nothing was wrong.
The blonde woman was crying for help and throwing her skinny frame against the glass door. Her shoulder and hip had to be badly bruised by now.
Now, Carter and the bearded man were taking turns breaking benches and chairs against the windows and trying not too seem too afraid. They had worked themselves into quite a sweat, but then, everyone was sweating now. The temperature had gone up about sixty degrees and was getting higher every second.
The radio volume had risen to a level that was debilitating, and with all the screaming and smashing of chairs, the sheer volume was maddening. The bearded man yelled over to Betty to turn off the damn radio. He couldn’t be expected to think with all that racket, but Betty had backed herself into a corner behind the desk and started to cry.
Still Mrs. Conroy read her book.
The yellow paint on the concrete wall was melting.
Smoke was still pouring from the dryers, and everyone was coughing. Mrs. Conroy’s Reader’s Digest slipped out of her hands and fell onto the floor.
After what seemed like several minutes but couldn’t have been more than a few, the two men stopped hurling things, and Carter went over to be with his new wife. Her face and hands were blistering. She was picking up steaming clothes from the floor, folding them and placing them into neat piles. Carter pulled her to him, and they sat down on the hot floor together.
The skinny bleach blonde was clutching at her throat. She couldn’t scream anymore. Everyone went quiet. There was no more air left to breathe. They were all burning and suffocating. Their skin was wrinkling and peeling off in layers. Mahogany could smell the flesh burning all around her, and she thought she could hear the bearded man praying although his lips were still.

Mahogany Fisher left the building. The demons knew she would have rather stayed and died with the people there, and that made them even happier. Her torment was an added plus.
The streets were empty now, and it had gotten much colder.
Just before she went inside the place she now called home, Mahogany heard a clap of thunder. She knew it was the explosion of the ten dryers at the Learning Laundromat. Once again, she felt the familiar sting of murder.
CHAPTER TEN
August 10, Year Nine
Karen liked being single in New York. There was always so much going on, and she had friends now. Friends she’d made without any help from her husband. Of course, it wasn’t perfect. There were times, especially at night, when she was lonely, but Karen had her work to keep her company and lots of good books. She felt secure in her lifestyle.
Karen had met plenty of men since she left her husband over four years ago, and she had been asked out several times for dinner or for drinks, but she always said no. Karen was afraid of coming to depend on another person the way she had depended on her husband. It was her dependence on Mark that had kept her down for so long.
Back when she was with Mark, Karen didn’t even know that she wanted to paint. These days, painting was the most important thing. Finding this new passion was like walking into the sunshine after spending most of her life in the dark. Karen wasn’t willing to live another second in the shadows.

Karen still heard from Mark occasionally. He had remarried less than a year after their divorce was final. He met a woman online (basically a mail-order bride) and married her when she came over from Korea for a visit. Apparently, it had been love at first real life sighting.
Karen hadn’t met the woman, but Mark said she was amazingly gentle and sweet. He was helping her with her English and teaching her all about America. He was taking care of her.

It was late, and Karen was suddenly very tired. She would finish her painting in the morning. It was going to be one of her best, a tormented willow tree with spirits rising up from all the branches, very spooky. A lot of her paintings were like that. Spooky was Karen’s trademark, and it was working for her. She was making quite a name for herself.
Once in bed, Karen fell asleep almost instantly and had a dream.

She was back in the house in Boston, where she lived with her parents, and in the dream, Karen was only eight or nine years old. She was bringing a basket of clothes up to her parent’s bedroom. As she walked up the stairs, she heard a buzzing sound. It sounded almost like someone was running a lawnmower in the bedroom.
The sound scared Karen, but she kept walking toward it. After a minute, she realized that she was no longer carrying a basket of clothes. The shape had changed and gotten heavier. Karen looked down at her arms. She was carrying a little boy. His skin was pale, wrinkled and wet. He seemed bloated. Karen could almost see the water sloshing around under his skin. There were red circles around the boy’s eyes. His cheeks were poofed out and his mouth was scrunched up tight like he had a big jaw breaker in his mouth and was puckered up to kiss.
Karen didn’t know what to do with the little boy, so she decided to take him upstairs and ask her mom and dad what they thought she should do. She took a few more steps up the stairs, but then she felt something crawling on her left hand, so she looked down.
There were bees crawling out of the boy’s mouth, and they were all over Karen. She dropped the boy who landed at her feet with a single, solid thump. Karen hit at herself and shook her arms and legs trying to get the bees off of her. Then she ran the rest of the way up the stairs and down a nightmare long hallway to her parent’s bedroom.
Her father was lying on the bed with his shirt off, and her mother was kneeling down beside him. She had her head down on his chest.
Now, Karen was twenty-eight again. She still heard the buzzing, and now that she was in the room, it was much, much louder. Karen called for her mother to get away.
“Daddy is dead!”
Her mother looked up at her. She was confused, but she did get up and step away from the body. She walked toward Karen who was still in the doorway.
The window across the room flew open and a swarm of boxelder bugs flew in. Karen could see them perfectly, and she knew what they were. She saw every pair of the black wings and the bright red on their bodies. There were millions of them.
The bugs were talking. Karen couldn’t understand what they were saying, but she knew they were talking to her father.
Karen grabbed her mother’s arm and tried to get out the door. It was useless because now the door was sealed shut with some sticky, slimy glue. Karen’s hand was covered with it when she took it away from the knob. The boxelder bugs were coming fast at Karen and her mother, but before they reached them, there was a transformation.
The boxelder bugs turned into horse-flies, and soon, the two women were crawling with them. Karen was screaming, and her mother was screaming. The horse-flies were flying into their noses and down their throats. It felt as if they had filled up Karen’s stomach. She could feel them moving, and they didn’t stop coming. Karen couldn’t breathe. She was suffocating. She woke up clutching at her neck and gasping for air.

Karen reached over and turned on the lamp beside her bed, and the first thing she saw when her eyes adjusted to the light was a little black spider crawling across the ceiling. She shuddered and sat up pulling the light bedspread up to her chin. Why was it so cold?
As she sat there shivering, Karen became aware of a disturbing sound coming from just outside her bedroom door. It sounded like dragging feet. Karen sat back close to the headboard and looked around the room for something to use as a weapon. Her heart was still pounding hard from the nightmare, and she was sweating in spite of the cold.

Karen had occasionally run the “intruder in the house” scenario over in her mind, and she had a pretty good plan for just such a situation. The first thing she would do was get out of bed and find something small enough to wield and heavy enough to cause damage, nothing lethal, just damaging. The next thing she would do was call for help probably from the bathroom or the closet. She would not hesitate or be embarrassed about placing the call. She would not be one of those people who died in their homes without at least leaving a description of the perpetrator.
In Karen’s intruder scenario, she absolutely would not go looking around the house for the intruder saying stupid things like, “Who’s there,” or “I have a gun.” Those people were stupid and they always got what they should have expected, at least they did in the movies. Karen would find her “something heavy” and make the call.
She decided that her heavy object of choice for tonight’s adventure was a heavy healed shoe. The pair the shoe came from was not very flattering, but the long rectangular heal with the square base was nailed in and the perfect size with which to conk someone in the head. She could see the shoe from where she was on the bed. It was sitting just outside of the closet.
The problem was that Karen’s only phone, her cell, was in her backpack on a little table in the hallway. Retrieving it would mean going toward the noises. Instead, Karen decided to abandon the shoe/weapon plan and make her way to safety by escaping through the window and onto the fire escape. She knew the woman who lived in the apartment below hers. Maybe she could get her attention.
Karen swung her legs out from under the blankets, but just as her feet were about to touch the floor, a sinister, unexpected, childish and completely paralyzing thought ran through her mind.
“There might be something under the bed, something slimy that will grab at my legs.”
She pulled her legs back under the covers. Her eyes stayed glued to the door. She could still hear the dragging sounds. Something took shape in the doorway.
It was a man.
Karen opened her mouth to scream, but before any sound came out, she recognized the man and knew she was still in her dream. It was her father.

He was thin and old and wearing the clothes he was buried in.
Karen let the blanket fall and started pinching herself and shaking her head back and forth violently.
“Wake up! Wake up!” She said in a whisper that was only slightly shy of a scream. “This is only a dream.”
Her father waited patiently for her to finish.
“This is no dream, Karen, but please don’t be afraid.”
“Go away!” Karen tried to back away, but there was no place to go.
“Please, Baby. I won’t hurt you.” His voice sounded raspy, like he had a bad cold, and his skin was deathly white except for around his eyes which was deep red, like the boy in her dream.
There was something about the man standing in front of her now that was different from the man Karen remembered as her father. There was something missing, something Karen had been avoiding since she was nine. This man was more like the man who had been Karen’s father when she was a little girl, the one she had loved.

When Karen was a little girl, she believed that her father was the best thing there was. The sun rose and set because of him. He made her feel important and special and, along with Karen’s mother, her father made her feel safe, like nothing bad in the world could ever touch her. Karen remembered her father working very hard at his job, but he was never too busy to comfort his daughter when she needed it. Back then, Karen was proud of her father.
The year Karen turned nine, her father changed. It was right after he stopped having his headaches and the family moved to Boston. Work and money became the most important things to him, and he never had time for Karen anymore.
Karen’s father seemed to be hiding something, and Karen started to imagine the things it could be. She would lie awake at night thinking about her father and why he was so secretive about his new job, and she would end up scaring herself into nightmares about him.
Karen convinced herself at some point, that the man who claimed to be her father wasn’t really him at all. Her father had been abducted and replaced by an alien. As she got older, Karen let go of that fantasy, but some of her still believed that the part of her father she had loved was gone. Now, he was back, and he wasn’t scary anymore.

“I’m not dreaming?”
“No, Sweetie. I’m really here.”
“You’re dead, so I must be going crazy.”
“No, you’re not. I’ve come back because of what I need to tell you. Will you listen?”
“Yes.”
He came a little farther into the room, and Karen noticed that something was moving around in her father’s thick, black hair. She couldn’t see what it was, but she didn’t like it.
“Don’t be afraid, Karen. I can’t touch you anymore.” He was sad, and as he came closer, Karen could see a little trickle of blood running down his forehead. He stopped when he was just a few feet from the bed, and Karen was able to see what was happening. There were bugs in her father’s hair, and they were picking at his scalp.
The hair on Karen’s own head seemed to rise up and move around. Goose flesh sprung up all over her arms. She had to scratch herself.
“Daddy! Are you okay?”
“No, Karen. I’m not. This is my punishment. They can’t touch you either.”
Karen’s mind drifted for an instant to poor, old Prometheus and his plague of birds. The thought overwhelmed her with sadness.
“What are you being punished for?”
“For being stupid.”
“Tell me.” She was crying now but softly.

The ghost of Karen’s father took another step into his daughter’s bedroom. He was so pathetic. Karen wanted to run to him and flee him at the same time. She didn’t move.
“Nineteen years ago, I made a bargain.” He turned his head a little so he wasn’t looking directly at her anymore. “I sold my soul.”
Karen didn’t say anything. She didn’t know what to say.
“I was supposed to die from that brain tumor, but I didn’t think I was ready. You were so young, and your mother wasn’t making very much money. I didn’t have enough life insurance or any money saved up to take care of you. There were only bills. I hadn’t planned on dying when I was only forty years old. I felt like I’d let you and your mother down by getting sick.”
He brought his head around to face her again. Still Karen said nothing.
“When I came home from getting my test results, I told you and your mother the bad news. I felt like such a failure. Maryanne was strong though. She told me not to worry about the two of you. She wanted me to concentrate on beating the cancer and getting better. She was such an optimist, your mother. I loved her for that, but she didn’t understand that there was nothing I could do. The doctors didn’t think the chemotherapy would help, and neither did I. I knew I was going to die. I wasn’t being dramatic or pessimistic. I really knew it.”
“You should have tried,” Karen said and was startled by the sound of her own voice.
“I know, and maybe I would have if things had happened differently. After I talked to you, I wanted to be alone, so I could wallow in self-pity. I went for a drive. I drove way out into the country until I was completely lost. Then I got out and started walking down this lonesome highway. I hadn’t seen any cars since I’d left the main road, but after a minute of walking, I saw a car coming up the road toward me. It was completely black, even the windows. At first, I thought it was tinted glass, but then I realized that something was covering the windows.
The car was only going about ten miles an hour, and it was teetering back and forth between the lanes. I wondered why the driver didn’t just stop. Maybe his brakes were out. Anyway, just after the car passed me, it went off the road into a ditch.
I walked over to where the car had left the road. It was just a few yards away. When I got there, I looked down at the car, and I realized that the thing covering it was alive.
It was cockroaches. I knew it right away because when I was little, my family went through a rough time, and the house we lived in was infested with big, black, filthy cockroaches just like the ones that were on that car.
I didn’t want to touch the car, but I knew I had to try and get the people out. I took off my jacket and wrapped it around my left hand, and brushed some of them away from the door handle. I opened the door with my other hand. The car was completely packed with cockroaches. Millions of them fell out when I opened the door. I could see parts of people sticking out from under the bugs. There was a hand, a shoe, and a little boys face. I knew they were all dead, and I was glad for that.
I was all set to run, but before I could move, I heard a voice…more like a chorus of voices. It was soothing and warm. I relaxed and tried to understand them. I think maybe I was being hypnotized.
I knew that the voices were coming from the cockroaches. They told me that the people in the car had always been dead, and now they were at peace. I shouldn’t worry about them. Then they flew off of the car and hovered over my head. I didn’t know that cockroaches could fly, but these did fly. They didn’t seem like disgusting monsters anymore. They seemed like a protective cloud. They seemed like angels.
They told me that they knew I was dying, and they said that even if I had the chemo, I would only live for three months. I would be sick the whole time. They understood what I was going through, and I was right to be worried. My wife and daughter would have a hard life without me there to help and support them. My family wouldn’t have enough to eat, and my daughter might get very sick. With no money or insurance, my wife wouldn’t be able to get her the kind of treatment she would need, and she would die.
They told me all of those things, but it took them less than a second to say it all because they said it to my mind. They told me they could help me. If I would agree to share myself with them, I could have ten more years to take care of you and your mother.
They knew exactly what to say and how to say it. Part of me wanted to ask questions about who they were and what they wanted me for, but I didn’t let myself ask because I suspected that I wouldn’t like the answers. I wanted it to be easy, and they made it very easy for me to say yes. They said I had to decide right away or they would die, and I would too. All I had to do was open my mouth, and we would all be saved, so I did it. They poured into me and stayed there for ten years.”
Karen’s hands were up at her neck. She was trembling, and her skin had gone a shade lighter.

“Oh, Karen, I’m sorry. I hate to tell you all of this, but I need for you to know how horrible it was, so you’ll understand.”
“I know, Daddy. Who were they?”
“They are spirits, Karen, a swarm of the most powerfully insane lost souls in existence. They call themselves “The Occupants” and they needed me far more than I needed them. They thrive on fear and suffering, and they needed me so that they could continue to spread their insanity and terror in the world. They didn’t tell me that. They didn’t mention the fact that I would have to watch them murder and torture people for ten years. They didn’t tell me I would have no control.
They did get me the money, though, and they got me out of Georgia, but they made it so I had to lie to the people I loved. I couldn’t tell you about my job, Karen, because there was no job. I was out with them…doing their work.
I wanted so badly to be close to you like I was before, but I knew that if I was close to you, all that malice would be close too, and I couldn’t bare that, so I pulled away as much as I could.
I tried to pull away from your mother too, but I couldn’t face being that much alone, and I got the feeling that she sensed something wasn’t right with me and wanted to be with me anyway. I never deserved Maryanne, and she deserved so much better than me.
When we got married, I told her I would take care of her. But it didn’t work out that way at all. I felt I had cheated her out of the life she could have had. She was so beautiful and smart. Your mother could have had any man she wanted, but she got stuck with me.
“Mom didn’t feel that way.”
“I did.” He sighed and shifted his weight. Karen had never seen anyone look so tired.
“They made me rich,” he continued. “And that made me glad because I could take care of my family, but I swear to you, Karen, that I didn’t know how it would be. They never left me alone. They were always moving about, and I always felt like I was covered in creeping, crawling cockroaches. I knew I had been foolish and so damned wrong, but I couldn’t turn back. I had no choices any more.
When my time was up, I was happy. I was ready to die. I thought that no matter how I had been used, at least I had taken care of you and your mother. I had left you something.” Karl ran a finger thoughtfully down the center of his chest.
“They came out of here. My chest split open, and I felt it.” Impossibly, his face went a shade paler. “Then I felt them crawling over me for a few seconds before I died. I thought it was over, but when they left me, they killed your mother. They broke their promise. I only let them in to save her…and you. They knew that. They lied to me. It was all a lie.”

“How did they kill her?” Karen heard herself asking the question she had been dreading the answer to for years. She thought she knew what it would be.
“They suffocated her. They flew into her nose and mouth and eyes. They covered her whole face until she couldn’t breathe. She was terrified when she died.”
“Get out!” Karen was sobbing now.
Karl’s white face was almost completely covered in blood. He seemed to fade a little, but he didn’t move away.
“This is my punishment. I have done this to myself because I killed your mother. I will not rest until the cycle is stopped, but I can’t stop it without your help.”
Karen was still crying. She wanted to run but didn’t think her legs would move, so she sat there silently with tears soaking the front of her pajamas.
“I’m not sure there’s a god, Karen, and if there is one, he’s not like we all thought. I think he’s more like a judge than like a loving father. I think that at the beginning of time, someone set down a bunch of rules for the world, for good and evil and everything. I think maybe God only gets involved when somebody breaks one of the rules.
I’ve had a lot of time with my thoughts over the years, and I believe that when the swarm killed your mother, they broke a rule. Now, I get a chance to make things right. I’ve been allowed to come back and tell you how to destroy them. There’s no guarantee, just a chance. That’s all we have.” He stopped to wipe away some blood that had trickled onto his lips.
“When I was possessed, the occupants learned all about me. They could read my mind. They knew all of my memories and all of my plans. They knew every thought I ever had, but I knew everything about them too. I know their plans.”
Karl waited for Karen to speak, but she didn’t say anything. She was looking at her lap and scratching her arms.
“Every ten years, the swarm must take flight. The spirits leave the body and go to another town and another victim. They have no choice in the matter. They know the town always, but the person is revealed to them later. When the time comes, they are given knowledge about that person. The occupants use this knowledge to convince him to accept them…They can’t enter a body without permission.”
“What happens if the person refuses them?” Karen asked in a small voice. She didn’t look up.
“If the swarm is refused, it will lose power and cease to exist. It will be finished, and the plague on the world will be done. That’s how we can help, Karen. I know where they are now, and I know where they are going, but I need you to find out who they are going to. You have to convince that person that to accept the swarm would be the worst mistake they ever made. Do you understand?”
“I’m not sure. I think you’re asking me to chase your demons, and I’m not sure I want to do that.” Karen’s voice was small but surprisingly firm.
“It will be very dangerous, yes, but you must give this a lot of thought before you refuse. Karen, we could change the world for the better. We could make a real difference.”
“I don’t know if I want that on my head.”
“The swarm is in Idaho, in a small town called Learning. The occupants are living in a woman, and they are killing people. If you go to Idaho, I will come to you again and tell you whatever else I can. If you decide not to go, I’ll understand, and I’ll not bother you again, but you have to decide soon, Karen. The transfer is to take place in October of next year.”
Karen took a breath to speak, but her father was gone.
CHAPTER ELEVEN
August 11, Year Nine
Karen Noland left her apartment late in the afternoon and began to walk. She had no destination and no plan. She needed to pull herself together. She needed to get out of the house. Karl Penwalski’s daughter needed some air.
Karen spent that morning in a paralyzed fog. By the time she convinced herself to leave her bedroom, it was afternoon. The past several hours had been a repeating cycle of terrified contemplation followed by fitful, nightmare filled sleep which led to shocked inhalations and abrupt awakenings, stifled screams and more terrified contemplation.
Karen was probably in shock. Maybe she was losing her mind. Sane people didn’t get visits from dead fathers who sent them on ridiculous missions unless they were dreaming, and Karen was certain that she had been fully awake when she spoke with her father last night.
Now she struggled with a mixture of excitement and fear. She was actually excited because she had a mission. Someone needed her, and Karen realized how much she’d been missing that in her life. She was afraid though because she knew if she set out on her dead father’s task, she would be putting her sanity and maybe her life in danger.
In the light of the early morning, Karen had been fully certain about the reality of her father’s visit. There was no question to the validity of her vision. She had seen her father, and he was real. Now though, she was filled with uncertainty. Everything was hazy, and there was no one she could talk to about any of this.
It occurred to Karen then that she was lonelier than she had allowed herself to believe. Oh, she had plenty of acquaintances in the city and a handful of people she felt comfortable introducing as “My friend, so and so, and his wife what’s her name” but only two real friends in all of New York. Yes, it was two more friends than she’d had before moving here, but it certainly didn’t qualify her as popular.

Brenda Larson was a woman 10 years Karen’s senior who ran one of the galleries that had featured Karen’s paintings, and there was Jeff Thorne the real estate agent who had taken her all over New York looking for the perfect, affordable living space. These were her friends.
Half of the reason she’d hit it off so well with Brenda was that Brenda had a family, and was usually busy enough that the most she ever asked of Karen was the occasional lunch or gallery outing. However, Brenda was always good for a phone conversation, and she always, absolutely always, returned Karen’s emails.
Brenda was great to hang out with because she shared stories about her kids and her husband, and she listened when Karen shared what she could about her own life. Mostly though, Brenda let Karen be Karen, and that was a pretty big deal. That meant that Brenda did not get offended when Karen got lost in her work for weeks at a time or when she got suddenly quiet or refused to talk about her childhood or teen years.
Karen could definitely tell Brenda the story of her ghost father, and Brenda would definitely be more than happy to drive Karen to the emergency room to have the brain scans run. For as understanding as Brenda was, Karen couldn’t for a second imagine convincing that practical mother of three beautiful, rational soccer playing vegetarians that her good friend Karen was perfectly awake and in perfect health when “Ghost Dad” had dropped by crawling with insects and telling “Tales from the Crypt.”
Of her two friends, Jeff was the more likely to listen to a story about dead fathers coming back for visits without assuming brain damage as the likely invitation. He read and talked often about all sorts of paranormal happenings running the gambit from alien abduction conspiracies to reincarnation all the way to psychic pets. He had been the first person in Karen’s new life to fall in love with one of her paintings. He offered to buy it on the spot. Jeff was the one who had introduced Karen to the man who provided Karen her first chance to show and sell her work.
Jeff would have been exactly the right person to talk to at a time like this, but Jeff was incommunicado. He and his husband Doug were off on a spiritual retreat somewhere in the northwest where technology of all kinds and especially internet and cell phones were highly frowned upon.

So, Karen was all alone with this craziness, and in the face of that reality, the sudden social call from Dad made perfect sense. Truth be told, Karen was alone with a lot of things, and frankly, she missed her dad.
Karen had started missing her father while he was still alive. She missed the way he was before he had those headaches, and when she thought about him, she told herself that what he had turned into wasn’t really him at all and that it wasn’t his fault.
Maybe, she had created the visit because she wanted to remember him as a noble man, a man who righted wrongs and wanted to save the world from evil. Could that desire really be strong enough to bring her father back from the dead? Karen did wonder. If she could be so easily made to believe that something so totally fantastic was real, what else was her mind capable of? Would dead presidents and ravaged pop stars come to visit her some day?
As she walked, Karen went so deep into her thoughts that she stopped paying close attention to where her feet were going, and she wasn’t even aware that her legs were sore. She kept walking, and the day continued to pass. She wandered through crowded streets and onto roads less traveled. It was getting dark.
Karen finally snapped out of her daze when she heard shouts coming from behind her. She could only make out some of what was being said.

“Hey Lady, what are you looking for?”
“Did you lose your dog?”
“Did dingoes take your baby?”
Laughter
“Hey, Lady, whatchou doin’ out here all alone? Aint you afraid you might get mugged or somethin?” There was a lot of laughter and whooping at that.
Karen turned around, although she knew she shouldn’t. There were three women who all looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties. They looked as if they had dressed together, all with ripped, dirty jeans and black leather jackets. They were about a block away, and they were walking (more like dancing) toward her.
Shit.
“Hey you stupid bitch, we just want to help you out. You know, make sure you get home without any trouble. You don’t need to run from us.”
More laughter
These gangsters or thugs or whatever they were really did remind Karen of something out of “West Side Story.” After what she had been through, it wouldn’t have surprised her at all to see them begin to snap their fingers and dance and sing their way over to rob her. The Universe was definitely having some fun with Karen Noland this week.

Now, Karen was running down a street she didn’t recognize. What an idiot she’d been. She didn’t even have her phone. There were tall, ancient apartment buildings everywhere, and Karen was almost sure she saw a face in one of the windows she ran in front of, but she didn’t want to waste any energy screaming. She knew her city much better than that. All she could do was keep running, but she was getting so tired. It was hard to breathe.
Karen had managed to stay about a block and a half ahead of the three women. She thought if she could just manage a spurt of energy and increase her distance, she might be able to lose them. She said a silent prayer as she ran and then kicked up her heals as fast as she could stand.
It was getting pretty dark now. The street lights were on, but the street seemed amazingly vacant for as early as it was. There was no one to be seen except the three would be muggers.
Karen ran hard, huffing and puffing like an asthmatic. Her legs and feet were tired from the long walk, but she knew she couldn’t dare slow down even a little bit. She ran to a corner and turned left. The women saw her turn, but they didn’t see her race down the alley that was halfway down the block. They assumed she kept going straight up the main street. After all, dark alleys in New York were dangerous.
There was a big, green dumpster against the wall of one of the apartment buildings. Karen crawled behind it and huddled there. She held her breath as best she could and crossed her fingers tightly at her sides. She hoped that the women chasing her had grown tired as well. She could hear them running up the street, calling to her and laughing.
“Hey, Lady, wait up.”
“Yeah, I think I found your dog.”
The women chasing her didn’t turn down the alley. They kept running straight, and Karen let herself breathe for a moment, and that may have been her worst mistake. She could smell every rotten thing in that dumpster. It couldn’t have been dumped recently. There was too much smell to it. It was of rancid meat and fruit. It made her stomach gurgle and her throat swell.
There was water behind the dumpster, and Karen was kneeling in it. She had left the house wearing only an old jogging suit and tennis shoes, and she could feel the cold and slimy liquid soaking her knees and oozing into her shoes.
In spite of the smell and the wetness, Karen fully intended to stay behind that dumpster until the sun came up if she had to. She felt safe there. She wasn’t planning to give that up just yet, but then, she wasn’t planning on the rat.
The untimely creature dropped into the hood of Karen’s sweatshirt as she sat there catching her breath. Karen felt it crawling along the back of her neck with its slimy wet feet and felt the wet hair on its belly as it ran down the back of her shirt. This rat was kitten sized, and its whole body was wet with garbage ooze.
Before Karen had time to think about the consequences, she was up screaming and dancing around like an old housewife. The rat ran out of her shirt and scurried away. It was as upset as Karen was, but it would soon forget. Karen, on the other hand, was overwhelmed.
It was the smell of the dumpster all around her and everything that had happened so far. She simply couldn’t take it anymore. She had to throw up. She leaned over and vomited into the dumpster, and having her head that close to the garbage, made everything worse. It was a vicious cycle. Pretty soon, it felt like there was nothing left inside her. Wiping her face with the back of her hand, Karen backed away from the dumpster and right into the woman standing behind her. Her heart stopped.

One of them (she had greasy long hair that was pulled back into a pony tail and a bruised looking red face) grabbed Karen’s left arm and dragged her into the middle of the alley. Karen swung around with her other hand, but before she could make contact, one of the other two (this one was about an inch shorter than Karen’s five feet nine and a bit thinner than she was. She wore her long blonde hair hanging right in her face) got her other hand. Karen screamed and tried to pull herself away, but it was no use. She was caught. The two women pinned Karen against the wall of a building across from the dumpster. Each of them held an arm and stood on one of her wet feet so that she couldn’t move her legs to kick.
“She’s probably got some cash on her somewhere. Don’t you think, Mack?” The one with the ponytail said.
Mack was the third woman. Karen thought she must be the leader. She was gigantic, around six feet two inches tall and close to three hundred pounds. Her hair was cut short into a crew cut, and she looked like she might be Hawaiian or Greek or something, but her accent was pure New York.
“Yeah, she looks like the type.” She strode up to Karen and yanked the little black money purse from around her neck, walked a few steps away and started going through it. “She’s only got six bucks in here. That won’t even buy lunch!”
“We ran all this way for six stinking bucks?” The short woman on her right arm seemed genuinely disappointed.
“Looks that way.”
Mack stuffed Karen’s money into her pocket and dropped the money bag onto the street. She started to turn away and looked as if she was going to leave it at that. Karen could feel the grip on her arms slacken a bit. Then Mack turned around quickly and took a step back toward Karen.
Karen tried to back away, but there was no place to go.
Mack moved in another step closer, and as she did her right hand went into her pocket and pulled out a shiny silver object. She made a quick movement, and released an impossibly long, sharp blade.
Karen screamed in sudden desperation. “I’ve got cash at home. If you let me go, I’ll bring it to you. I promise. I’ll come back. I have a car. I can get it for you…”
“Either you’re completely stupid, or you think me and my girls here are completely stupid.” Mack said with a huff. “Which is it? Are you really stupid enough to go to the safety of your home and not call the police, and not lock yourself safely inside?” She paused to give Karen time to think it over. “Or do you think that we are stupid enough to let you go while we wait here in this exact location for you to come back with treasure and the cops? After you’ve been looking us in the face for,” she looked at her watch all the while holding the switch blade pointed in Karen’s direction, “ten fucking minutes? You must take us for idiots.”
Mack came a few steps closer, so that now she was standing directly in front of Karen. “I think we’ll all take a little trip to your place. Don’t you think that makes more sense?”
“Please, don’t do this.” Karen’s voice was unsteady. She tried again to back away.
“No, no,” Mack said. “This is a great idea. We’ll all go for a little walk and maybe you’ll fix us a snack. Then you’ll give us enough money to make us chasing your skinny ass for ten blocks worth fucking while. How does that sound?”
The two women were still holding Karen’s arms, and now Mack was standing right in front of her. She leaned in closer and looked into her eyes. It was intimidating and Karen was afraid for her life. She could feel Mack’s breath, and she could see in her face that she wasn’t just trying to scare her. She was willing to kill her.
In order to make the message a little bit more clear, Mack pressed a hand hard over Karen’s mouth and stepped away from her just far enough to give herself room to kick Karen hard in the shin. Mack was wearing heavy boots, and it took Karen a minute to decide for sure that her leg wasn’t broken. She could feel the bruise forming, and she could feel the tears forming at the bottom of her eyes.
“If you scream, I will kill you where you stand. Do you understand me?”
Karen swallowed and then slowly nodded.
“So I am going to move my hand, and you are going to tell me your name and your address, so I’ll know it if I ever need to find you again.”
She released a little of the pressure on Karen’s mouth. Karen inhaled and was about ready to speak, but Mack pressed her hand back tight against her face.
“I want to tell you,” she said in a calm low voice. “If you’re thinking you might like to lie to me right now just to maybe buy yourself some time or maybe you’re thinking that because I look so reasonable, you might like to argue with me a little bit and see if you can’t change my mind…I want to tell you that I hate running, and you made me run. I told you to wait up, but you just had to go and run, and then you had the nerve to let me catch you and only have six fucking dollars on you. I want to tell you, that if you don’t do exactly what I tell you, exactly when I tell you, I will kill you, and I will go on about my day like this little meeting never happened. Do you understand me?”

Karen nodded. She didn’t want to risk being hurt again, so she held her breath. Mack let her hand fall away from Karen’s face and moved her own face in even closer. Karen exhaled a shuddering breath and then took a deep full breath in.
The air Karen breathed in was tainted with the air the other woman had exhaled. Mack’s breath smelled as bad as the dumpster, like rotten meat and old fruit. On Karen’s second exhale, with no warning or time to adjust, she threw up right into the large, scary woman’s face, and all over her black leather. Karen wouldn’t have believed such a thing was possible if she hadn’t seen it for herself. This was the stuff legends were made of.
Mack took several shocked steps backward. She gaped at Karen and then looked down at her own cliché leather gangster jacket and threw up all over herself. The other two women were silent at first but soon both were laughing like drug crazed school girls.
Karen could feel their grips relaxing on her arms. She pulled herself away and started limping as fast as she could down the alley away from them. No one tried to stop her, and eventually she managed to run.

Karen’s leg was throbbing, and her feet were begging for mercy, but at that point, she couldn’t have stopped running if she wanted to. She reached the street that crossed the alley at a galloping pace she would have believed impossible second’s before and only saw the approaching headlights as the heavy metal universe plowed into her side. She was thrown onto the hood of a car and into a windshield.
When the car stopped and Karen rolled onto the street, she thought she heard her own bones breaking. There was a man with a high pitched voice screaming, “Oh my God! I didn’t see her. Oh my God! Did you see her? She just jumped out from nowhere! Is she dead?”
Karen went to sleep and dreamt about her mother.
When she woke up, it was December, and she knew what she had to do.

CHAPTER TWELVE
March 2
Ty Miller had been deputy in Pallor County for the last twelve years, and he had lived in Learning his whole life. He was thirty-five years old. Ty had gotten all of his education in Learning, lost his virginity in Learning, bought his first car in Learning and, up until recently, planned to grow old and die in Learning.
Over the last ten years or so, Learning had changed. Most people wanted to ignore it, but Ty couldn’t not see it. The whole mood of the town had changed, and the death rate had gone up about sixty percent. There was something destructive in the air.
The people of Learning were a practical bunch. They didn’t believe in ghosts or bad luck or anything else they couldn’t exactly see and measure, so to them, there was nothing strange about those people dying. Most of the deaths were easily explained. People had heart attacks or fell down the stairs, or drowned in their bath tubs, or were electrocuted rewiring their homes.
Some committed suicide like Ty’s seventy-six year old mother, or died in their sleep like his eighty-three year old father, but every once in a while, something happened that couldn’t be explained, like the explosion at the Laundromat several years ago (there were no explosives and no suspects) and more recently the death of the Stevens twins.
The identical, eight year old boys were crushed by a tractor. Their bodies were found lying next to each other with exactly the same injuries. They were perfect mirror images of each other. It looked as if they both just lay there and watched while someone drove over them. They didn’t even try to run.

To the residents of Learning, there was no reason to worry about things like that. People said that just because they didn’t know the explanation didn’t mean there wasn’t a very good one. There had to be. They said it, but some people who had lived in Learning their whole lives had taken their families and moved away.
People had gotten a whole lot less friendly and a lot more suspicious over the last several years. Nine years ago, when Old Lady Fletcher moved into what used to be the Tanner place, half the town went over to meet her with enough food and good will to last the woman a couple of months. They wanted to get to know her and make her feel welcome. It was the way people in Learning used to be, but they weren’t like that anymore.
Mrs. Fletcher had been the only newcomer to Learning for quite some time. Then, in January of this year, Karen Noland moved over from New York to do some painting. She bought the house that the Fosters had put on the market only one month before. No one went by to give Karen any food or to make her feel welcome. All she got was gossip and speculation.
“Why would a young girl from the city come all the way out here to paint?” And “Why do you suppose she came all by herself? She’s probably running from something. I’d steer clear of her if I were you!”
As far as Ty knew, he was the only person who had been by to greet Karen since she’d gotten into town.

Ty stopped by the old Foster place on the day the moving van came. Karen was out supervising the movers. There was something about her small, delicate features that didn’t fit the look in her eyes or the way she moved. She was intense.
Ty had never been the nervous type, but he was almost dysfunctionally so that morning as he approached Karen for the first time. His lame attempts at small talk were so obvious and unoriginal that he was still embarrassed about them now. Ty thinks he actually said, “Nice weather we’re having. Isn’t it?” Good Lord.
Karen didn’t appear to notice how nervous Ty was. For that matter, she didn’t notice him at all at first. She was so wrapped up in her day’s work. Ty thought he was probably little more than an annoyance to her. After a few minutes of clumsy chattering on his part and adamant assurances from Karen that she did not want him to help her get settled in, Ty got back in his car and left her to it.

Ty did manage to glean a little about the newest Learning resident. When Ty asked Karen if she had family joining her, Karen told Ty about her divorce. When she saw Ty gearing up to ask another question, Karen said she didn’t like to talk about it much because people had a real tendency to judge. They always wanted to know whose fault it was. Karen said she wasn’t sure who was to blame for her divorce. She and her husband shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. They weren’t good for each other was all. They had different needs.
Ty asked Karen why she moved to Learning of all places, and she told him that there were things she needed to do that she just couldn’t do in a big city. She wouldn’t be very specific, but she did say that she was getting tired of painting the city. She said it was depressing. She wanted to be some place a little friendlier.
Ty was fairly positive that Karen had picked the wrong small town.
He asked her how long she planned to stay, and she said she didn’t know. Part of Ty hoped Karen would stay for a long time (she might be just the pick-me-up this town needed), but part of him wanted to warn her to get out as soon as she could. Learning might be dangerous. Ty wasn’t sure how much longer he would stay there himself.

The first notably strange death Ty remembered occurred on a New Year’s Eve eight or nine years ago. Gladiola Simpson had found her husband, Burt, dead in the study of their farmhouse east of town. His neck was broken. The strange thing about it was that he hadn’t been anywhere near the stairs, and it didn’t look like he could have fallen from anything.
Burt was sitting down at his desk in front of some papers. There was no window in the room and only one way to get in, and that was by going passed Gladiola and her two teenage daughters in the kitchen who were cooking dinner at the time. There was no way anyone could have gotten into that room unless they were invisible.
There were no marks on Burt’s neck to give an indication of how he had injured himself, and there was no sign of a struggle. It looked as if Burt’s head had just dropped backwards and snapped on its own.
Ty had gone over to the Simpson place with Sheriff Kemperson that night and neither one of them could come up with any explanation to give Burt’s wife and children. There was an autopsy done over at the hospital in Coeur d’Alene, but nobody there had a clue either.
Eventually, people just made up their own explanations for the death and filed them away in their minds, so they didn’t have to worry about it anymore.
Ty overheard Julie Simpson telling one of the other kids at the Fourth of July picnic that year that her father had fallen off his chair in the study and broken his neck. She didn’t even sound like she was lying. It was what she really believed had happened.

There were more deaths every year after that, but there was no pattern to them. That was another reason no one would believe they were connected. There was no way any of the deaths could be explained as murders (there hadn’t been a murder in Learning since before Ty was born), but there was something unusual about a death rate picking up so much in a town that size. The population was actually decreasing.

It was almost as if the people of Learning were blaming the strangeness on Karen Noland even though she hadn’t been in town for most of it. Karen was pretty much shunned everywhere she went. People didn’t talk to her in the grocery store or at the bank. They treated her like she had some awful, very communicable disease.
Ty felt sorry for her, but all three times he had invited Karen out to do something that would let the others see she was a regular human, Karen had something more important to do like just finishing up a painting or waiting for a long distance call from New York. She seemed detached, not so much unfriendly, but secretive and uninviting.

Today, though, Karen had been different.
It wasn’t quite spring yet and still a little cold, but it was a nice day to work outside. Ty just happened by her house in his patrol car (as he had gotten in the habit of doing), when he saw Karen sitting on the porch sketching and slowed down to look.
The sun was shining on Karen and made her hair glisten. She was wearing a long, purple sweater that looked soft and seemed to make her light brown skin glow. Ty had never seen that exact purple before, but he decided it was his favorite.
Karen waved at him and smiled and then turned her face back to her work. Ty thought that smile, brief though it was, could have melted an iceberg and decided to give it one more try. He could handle a little bit more rejection if it let him get even a little closer to this intoxicating woman.
Ty parked just a little past her house and walked carefully up the sidewalk toward her. He was afraid he would trip over his feet and fall down if he didn’t pay close attention.
At first, Karen didn’t seem to notice that Ty had gotten out of his car. She was engrossed in the thing coming to life on the sketch pad on her lap. When she looked up, Ty thought he caught a glimpse of something like fear in her eyes that quickly changed into welcome.
“Ty, I’m so glad you stopped. I’ve been feeling a little bit lonely today.” Karen put her sketch pad down on one of the chairs sitting next to her. “Can you stay for a cup of coffee?”
“Sure!” Ty said, just a bit too enthusiastically.
He came the rest of the way up the stairs and sat down in the vacant lawn chair. A strong breeze ruffled the pages on the sketch pad. It made a rustling sound. Ty was looking forward to spring. It had been a long, strange winter.
Karen got up and went into the house, and Ty watched her the whole way. He was sure he had never seen anyone move like Karen did. She was graceful and completely unhindered by herself. Ty felt sorry for the man who had lost her. Karen’s ex-husband had to be suffering.
“Cream and sugar?” Karen called from the kitchen.
“Black is fine, thanks.”

Ty got up and bent forward to look at Karen’s sketch. He could tell right away that she had talent, but he had to wonder what her mind was like. The drawing so far was a little boy, small and almost skeletal, lying on a twisted, bare branch of a huge, old tree. There was a bee’s or hornet’s nest hanging just above him, and insects were pouring out of it in a long swarm that ended up in the little boys opened mouth. Ty shuddered. It looked like a page from hell.
“What do you think?”
Ty snapped upright as if caught at something wicked.
“I’m sorry. That was nosey.”
“I don’t mind…So what do you think?”
“It’s very good, but it’s kind of creepy. It surprises me that you did it.”
“Why’s that?”
“I guess I don’t really know why. What were you thinking about when you started it?”
“Just a dream I had once.”
“Do you have a lot of dreams like that?” Ty said with a laugh in his voice.
“Not as much now as when I was a kid. How about you?”
“What? Nightmares?”
“Yeah.” Karen looked directly at Ty with clear, frank, brown eyes. She seemed to want a real answer and not just more small talk.
Ty thought for a moment.
“Nothing quite as creative as this.” He motioned to the sketch pad as he sat back down in the lawn chair and took the coffee Karen offered him. “But I’ve had some doozies lately.”
“Do you like to talk about them?”
“It’s too nice a day. Let’s talk about something else.”

Karen seemed more than willing to change the subject. She started in about how she missed the city and all of her friends. She said she didn’t so much miss the pollution and the noise, but she did miss having people to do things with.
“You know,” she said. “I would really like to get out of this house more often and have some fun. I’ve been so caught up in my painting that I didn’t even notice how little of the town I’d actually seen. People here must think I’m a little hermit.”
“No, they don’t think that.”
“Well, what do they think?”
“I think I’d really like to be the one to give you the official tour.”
“I’d like that. You’re really the only person who has said more than two words to me since I got here. I guess small town people are a little leery of outsiders.”
“A little.”
“So, when do I get my tour?”
“I’d love to do it tonight, but I’m going to be on duty until late. How about tomorrow? I could pick you up around three. We could see the sights and then have some dinner.”
“That sounds wonderful. I’ll look forward to it.”
“Me too.”
And Ty had been looking forward to it ever since. There was something about Karen Noland that wouldn’t let go of him. He had been thinking about her every night since that first time he saw her.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
March 3
Danae was just getting home from the diner. She always worked the night shift, so it was about nine o’clock in the morning when she pulled up. She was tired but feeling sort of wound up at the same time because it had been such an unusual night.
Danae had given her phone number to an especially good looking truck driver who came in during the first part of her shift. It was something she’d been expressly warned against doing by everyone who worked there, especially Sandy, the night cook. Sandy said that most of those truck drivers who came in were married and just looking for a bed and a place to stay for a couple of hours to break the monotony of the road.
Mostly, Danae followed that advice and never gave her phone number to anyone, but this guy was special. His name was Bill Something German Sounding, and he was the best looking thing she’d seen in years. He was also just a little mysterious. Yes, it had been a strange night.
The Diner had been busier than usual. It was like a whole convoy had stopped in for breakfast right at three am, and people were still pouring in when Danae left. By the time she was done, her entire body was in pain, especially her feet. Then when she walked to her car, she thought she heard footsteps coming around the corner. It was light out and everything, but Danae didn’t see anyone to go with the footsteps and that gave her the willies. She ran to her car which made her feet hurt even more.
She was in such a hurry to get into her car that she dropped her keys on the street when she was taking them back out of the door. It took her several tries to pick them up because she kept fumbling them. She’d worked herself into quite a panic all of a sudden. Now, she felt stupid about it.
When she pulled up at the house, Danae saw her neighbor, Cindy Morgan, the crossing guard, out working the corner in her bright orange jacket. She was in the process of seeing some children safely across Burnham Road. Burnham, the street that went right in front of the elementary school, was the only street in Learning that got a lot of traffic. It was an exit off the freeway, and lots of people stopped in Learning to get gas or pick up something at the diner on their way to more exciting places.
Danae waved at Cindy, and Cindy waved back.
Danae loved her neighborhood and her little house. Technically, it wasn’t really her house, but she liked to pretend it was. It actually belonged to Coral and Norman Hall, and they were letting Danae stay in it until she got enough money saved up to pay for college. As long as she kept the place up, the Halls would let her stay for free. Danae only had to pay for the utilities.
Coral and Norman moved out of Learning three years ago when their son Jason died. He was only five years old. They found him drowned in the bath tub. It was strange too, because it was the middle of the night and no one even heard him running the water. Both parents said they were unusually light sleepers too. It was weird that both of them could sleep through something like that.
The Halls moved because they couldn’t bear to stay in the house that their only child had died in. It was just too painful, but for some reason, they didn’t want to sell it right away. Maybe they thought they’d come back some day. Both Coral and Norman had been born and raised in Learning. Danae was sure it must have been hard for them to leave. Anyway, they asked her to look after their house, and she jumped at the chance. Her parents did too. They thought she was getting a little too old to be living with them.
As she walked up the concrete steps leading to the front door, Danae thought she heard footsteps again. She stopped and looked around but once again saw nothing. She really had to get some sleep.
It was colder today than it had been in the last few weeks. March was coming in like a lion. The grass still had big patches of snow from the last big dump in February. It hadn’t stayed warm enough for everything to thaw, but up until this morning, it had been feeling like spring.
A cold wind cut through her legs. Danae had on her pink waitress dress that her mother always said was too short. Danae thought she looked pretty good in it. She had been told more than once about her great legs, but now, she wished she had a dress that was a little less flattering and a little more practical. Her nylons weren’t doing much in the warmth department.
She waved at Cindy one last time, and when she smiled her teeth hurt. Cindy waved back. She looked as if she was farther away somehow, even though she was still just on the corner. It was like the world had gotten bigger. Danae shook her head and went inside.
The inside of the house was almost as cold as outdoors because Danae had been trying to save on the bills. She’d made really good tips tonight though, and so she decided to splurge. She went over to the thermostat and cranked it up to seventy. Then she went into her bedroom and got changed into her warm, fuzzy, green pajamas and matching fuzzy green slippers and let her hair down from its pony tail.
Danae had long, black hair. When it was down, it hung past her butt almost halfway to her knees. Her hair was her pride, and she spent a lot of time and money keeping it nice with special shampoos and conditioners. Danae sat on the edge of her bed and brushed her hair out and admired herself in the mirror. Not a bad looking chick.
“Much better.”
She went into the bathroom and ran some warm water into the sink to wash her face with. She started singing “Lean on Me” into the mirror, and didn’t hear the front door open.
After she was done in the bathroom, Danae went into the kitchen and got an orange out of the fridge. She always had a piece of fruit (or a candy bar) when she came home from work because it helped her unwind. She liked her oranges cold. They were harder to peel that way, but they tasted so much better.
Her mother always did a little shudder when she saw Danae bite into a piece of cold fruit. Danae’s mother had cold sensitive teeth. When she lived at home, sometimes Danae thought it was funny to eat her cold oranges right in front of her mother just to watch the involuntary shudders. Pretty dumb, she knew, but it was one of life’s little treats.
She brought the orange into the living room along with a little plastic bag from the grocery store to catch the peelings. She sat down on the couch and didn’t even notice the old woman sitting across from her in the arm chair.
Danae peeled absentmindedly and thought about the handsome truck driver, Bill. It was his chin that had really attracted her to him. He had a cleft chin like Duddly Dooright, a very strong feature. Danae had never seen a chin like that on a real person before. Oh, the rest of his face was nice too, but it was his chin that she’d given her phone number to.
Danae’s fingers filled up with the white orange skin, and she stopped for a moment to clean her nails into the bag then went back to peeling. She thought about what she would wear on her first date with Bill. Maybe that little leather mini her mother was always warning her about.
When the outer peel was gone, Danae started picking off the white, stringy part that was left behind. She knew some people ate that part. Her mother did. Her mother swore up and down that all the vitamins were in the yucky part. Danae didn’t care. She was only going to eat the good part. Life was short enough.
When she was satisfied that she’d done a thorough job, Danae stuck both of her thumbs into the hole at the top and pulled the orange into halves.
A splatter of thick, warm blood spewed out at her from within the piece of fruit. It wet her face and the front of her pajamas. Danae screamed and hurled both halves across the room. They bounced off of the opposite wall next to the book shelf with a unison thump, leaving a red inkblot like stain on the white wall. The orange halves landed (miraculously in sync) in the small trash sized wicker basket that was in the corner next to the book shelf. It was an amazing shot which Danae was sure she couldn’t have made if she had been trying.
“What the hell?” Danae said out loud in a low shaky voice. She closed her eyes and shook her head a few times keeping them tightly closed. She needed rest. Okay, that was all it was. She was losing it because she was over tired. She shook her head again, just to make extra sure, and then she opened her eyes and looked down at her hands. They were still covered in red, but it wasn’t blood. It couldn’t be blood because blood didn’t come squirting out of oranges. It had to be something else. Maybe, the orange was rotten.
She brought her hands up to her face and looked at them more closely. They were coated in thick, red…blood. Oh Jesus!
She sprang out of her seat unconsciously wiping her hands on her clothes and headed for the front door. She was fully intending to run out into the morning light screaming her head off. Maybe, people would think she was crazy, but they sure as hell wouldn’t ignore her.
When she got to the door, Danae found it locked, and she knew she’d left it unlocked when she came home. She tried to turn the dead bolt to let herself out, but it wouldn’t budge. The door was sealed shut.
Danae started pounding on the thing with all of her strength and screaming as loudly as she could, but suddenly, it was a as if all the sounds she made were being swallowed up as they came off of her. She was screaming and pounding in complete silence.
Danae could feel her heart pounding like a giant bass drum. She ran past the basket (not even pausing for a glance inside) and back into the kitchen and immediately started digging silently through the knife drawer. She cut her finger on a small paring knife but didn’t even notice. She grabbed the biggest knife she had and ran back past the basket and down the hall toward her bedroom with it.
All of the doors in the whole house slammed shut at once, the kitchen door, the bathroom door, the study door, and the door to the basement. Danae could feel the sudden change in air pressure as the doors “woompt” shut. Still, there was no sound.
Now, the only place Danae could go was back into the living room where it was, and she knew somehow that her only hope was to kill it before it started to grow like the blob in her favorite wicker basket.
She clutched her knife tighter and lifted her right foot planning to take a step in the direction of the living room. When her foot touched the ground, all the sounds in the house were set free. She heard her screams, the slamming doors, her footsteps, the kitchen knives clinking and clanking together, the drawer opening, and her own pounding heart. It was everything, all at once, an explosion of specific clear sounds.
The surprise of it made Danae jump almost out of her skin. She sucked in a gust of strange tasting air and dropped her knife onto the floor. It made a very normal sounding clank that Danae could discern even above all the other racket that was still shaking the house. She stood there frozen as time passed her. She was too scared to move.
After a moment or two, when all the noise had died down, Danae became aware of another sound. This was a slippery, raspy sound like alien breathing, and it was coming from the basket. She reluctantly returned her attention to it. She could only see part of it from where she was standing in the hallway, so she took a deep breath and moved one step closer to the room she had twice fled.
The whole basket was pulsing in and out, and when it stretched she could hear the wicker threads rubbing against each other. Some of them were starting to snap. She had to hurry. It was getting bigger.
Danae bent down to pick up the knife that was lying near her feet, but it slid across the floor and out into the living room. It landed right in front of the pulsing wicker basket. She straightened herself up and tried to run the other way, but somehow, she ended up running right to the basket. It was like the whole house had turned around.
Danae was standing right beside the basket and looking down into it. It was filled about two thirds of the way with what looked like bloody, membranous intestines, and they were moving… over and under each other… and in and out.
Danae was going to scream again, but when she tried to, the thing in the basket flew up at her face and into her mouth. It worked its way deep into her throat and lodged itself there.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN
March 3
Karen and Ty were sitting on the sofa in her living room drinking coffee. They were quiet as they had been for much of the night.
Ty called at about two thirty that afternoon to say that he wouldn’t be able to take Karen on the sightseeing trip they had planned, but he still wanted to take her out to dinner. When he showed up, it was obvious right away that something was wrong. He seemed depressed or maybe even annoyed at something. Ty’s mood was such a contrast to his usual easy going manner that Karen found herself at a loss for words.
At one point during dinner, she asked Ty if he wanted to talk about whatever it was that had him so preoccupied. Ty didn’t think he could talk about it just yet. He only wanted to sit and look at something pretty for a little while. And so they sat and looked at each other.

Karen had been in Learning for three months now, and she hadn’t heard a peep from her father the ghost. She was starting to wonder again if maybe she had hallucinated the entire experience. Learning seemed to be a pretty normal town. There had been no deaths since she’d gotten there, and other than being a little standoffish, the people seemed pretty normal too.
When she first moved to New York, a few people in her apartment building had made a point of coming to see her. Of course they were probably making sure that she wasn’t a criminal or someone who was going to create problems for them. But, for whatever reason, the welcome wagon had come, and it made Karen feel like she was going to be okay in the big city.
It was perhaps a little strange that no one in Learning seemed at all interested in getting to know her or making her feel welcome, but that was probably a small town thing. Maybe it took small towners a while to warm up to new faces, especially new faces from one of the world’s crime capitals.
When she set off on her quest, Karen had been worried that the town’s people would be too friendly and nosey like the ones she’d watched on family friendly television shows- with neighbors who watched out of their windows and noticed when you washed your car or mowed your lawn. Karen didn’t want to have to explain much about herself, and she didn’t want to have to make up excuses for not encouraging a lot of visitors.
There was definitely no problem in that department. Karen had to turn Ty down a few times, but not one other soul had even made an attempt.

Ty was exactly the type of person that Karen could have seen herself being friends with under different circumstances, but if what her father had told her was true, being around Karen Noland might not be the safest thing for the next year or so. She was doing Ty a favor by keeping him at a distance.
Karen did her research before she moved to Learning. She found out that there were very few new additions to Learning and the newest member of the small community was a Mrs. M. Fletcher. It was easy really.
Karen went online and got the number for the Learning Public Library and asked the man who answered the phone who the most long term resident of Learning was (It was Earnest P. Thompson or Grandpa Thompson as he was often called. He had lived in Learning his whole life and at the time of the call was one hundred and three years old), and then asked who was the most recent addition.
Karen didn’t even have to make up a reason for asking her questions. The information was stored right there in the front of the man’s brain. No computer search required. When Karen said, “I have a couple of questions for you if you have time,” she was greeted with enthusiasm and an eagerness to share knowledge, but when she’d asked for the best way to get to Learning from the nearest interstate, the librarian’s demeanor had changed. He asked her if she was planning to pay a visit, and when Karen said that she just might do that, he responded with a short, “I don’t think I can help you with that,” and then an abrupt “Goodbye.”
When she arrived in Learning, Karen found out that Mrs. M. Fletcher was the old woman who lived alone in the big, grey house at the edge of town (just the type of thing stories are made of). Mrs. Fletcher had moved to Learning in the winter almost ten years ago (the year Karen’s father had died), so in that respect, she fit the description her father’s ghost had given.

Karen had spent about half of her nights in Learning thus far hiding in the bushes outside the window of the little old lady’s house, and Mrs. Fletcher did not seem to Karen like a woman possessed. She seemed like a simple, little old lady. Karen planned to keep watching her mostly because there was nothing else for her to do until her father came back.
Yes, it had occurred to Karen many times that her father might never come back. Perhaps, whoever sent him thought that one visit would be enough. Of course there was also the possibility that Karen was losing her mind, spying on old people and sneaking around behind people in the grocery store so she could listen to their conversations. It certainly wasn’t normal.
Karen felt like she had been doing everything in her power to get clues about what if anything was going on in Learning, but up until that night she had gotten nowhere.

Karen had been hesitant about accepting a date with Ty because she didn’t want to see him get hurt on her account (he seemed to really like her), but she needed to find out if anything unusual had been going on in Learning for the last several years, and there was no one more qualified to tell her than the deputy.
That was the main reason she accepted the date. The other reason was that she liked the idea of being around him. She liked the way he looked and the way he looked at her. It seemed he was always genuinely glad to be seeing her.

“Ty,” Karen broke the silence after a full half hour, “It’s obvious you’ve had a rough day. You could have cancelled. I would have understood.”
“You don’t understand, Karen. Thinking about spending this time with you is what pulled me through this terrible day.”
Ty shuddered as a picture of Danae Smith leaning over a basket with her intestines hanging out of her mouth passed through his head. He couldn’t understand how a person could vomit up their own insides.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it? It might help a little.”
“I wouldn’t mind, but I really don’t think you want to hear about it.”
“Come on. You bought me dinner. The least I can do is let you clear your head. I’m a great listener.”
“I bet you are.”
Ty smiled. He thought it would be too wonderful if Karen was having some of the same feelings for him that he was having for her.
“So tell me.” Karen scooted closer to him on the sofa. She set her coffee cup down and picked up his hand.

For a moment, Ty forgot that anything in the world was wrong. He was completely absorbed by the fact that Karen Noland was holding his hand. He leaned over and kissed her on the mouth.
Karen was caught by surprise, and at first, she kissed him back. Then a memory of her father’s face, pale and bloody flashed through her mind. She saw the little army of cockroaches eating at his scalp and pushed Ty away. She didn’t let go of his hand.
“Karen, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I did that! It’s just that you’re so…”
Karen gently placed her free hand over Ty’s mouth to quiet him.
“It’s okay. Tell me what’s going on here,” she said.
Ty took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Maybe it would help to talk to someone with some objectivity.

“Officially, nothing,” he said when Karen moved her hand. “Officially, a twenty year old girl just died suddenly of unknown causes. The sheriff and I have everything under control…officially. It’s supposed to be kept under rap. I shouldn’t even be telling you this, but everyone else in Learning knows that something is wrong.”
Karen squeezed Ty’s hand. Something was happening in this town. Maybe she hadn’t dreamt the whole thing up after all, and maybe, that wasn’t such a good thing.
“I’ve only been deputy sheriff for twelve years, but I’ve lived in Learning my whole life, just like most of the people here. Learning has always been one of the healthiest places in the world. Our old people live to be ninety at least. Old Man Thompson is one hundred and four. This has always been the perfect place to live if you didn’t need a lot more than friendly people and mountains to keep you happy.” He paused and took another long, slow breath.
“In the last ten years, there have been more deaths than in any other ten years in Learning’s history, and people are starting to move out. People whose families have been in Learning for over a century are leaving their farms and friends and running away. I’m thinking about leaving myself. That’s why, when I first met you I asked you why you were here.”
“I have my reasons.”
“I know you do. I just can’t help but wonder if your reasons are good enough to risk your life for. There’s something wrong in Learning, something dangerous.”
Ty’s face showed his inner turmoil. Karen could see two things. One, Ty was honestly afraid of what was happening, and two, he cared about Karen’s wellbeing.
“Did anything noteworthy happen at the same time the murders started?”
“That’s the thing. There haven’t been any murders. People have just been dying; most of them of apparently natural causes, but some of them have died quite strangely, like today. That nice girl, Danae Smith, she was only twenty years old. She was working at the diner, saving up money to go to college. She was going to become a veterinarian…maybe even work right here in Pallor county. Now she’s dead. Nobody murdered her. She’s just dead. No foul play.”
“How did she die?”
“I don’t want to tell you. If I say it out loud, I’ll have to think about it more than I already am, and if I do that, I’ll throw up.”
Karen squeezed his hand again. She hated being insensitive, and more than that she hated using Ty, but she had to get some answers from him, so she could put a stop to this nightmare. She had to do it for her mother… and her father.
“Did any new people move to town?” She asked.
“What?”
“Ten years ago… did any new people move to town?”

“Sheriff Kemperson and I have been all through this. The only new person to move to Learning in the last fifteen years besides you was old Lady Fletcher. Poor old lady never even leaves her front porch anymore. She lives all by herself in that house that looks like something out of one of your paintings, and nobody even goes to check on her except me. They used to, but nobody is as sociable as they used to be. I think you’ve noticed that. It’s like they think that people are dying because of witchcraft or something.”
“If it’s not witchcraft, what do you think it could be?”
“I think…I don’t know, but I don’t believe that sweet little, old lady is a witch. I see her every once in a while in the morning. Sometimes, I drive by when she’s getting her newspaper, and I’ve gone over and sat with her a few times. I think I’m the only one who even notices if she’s still alive. The kid who delivers her groceries leaves them on the porch for her in the cooler. He doesn’t even knock, and Mrs. Fletcher sends a check to the store. I think maybe she feels some of the suspicions in the town and purposefully stays inside. She always waves good morning to me if she sees me though, and she…Wait a minute. You’re not saying you believe in witches, are you?”
“I don’t know.”
There was a long silence, and then Karen said, “Ty, I’m getting kind of tired, and I have a call coming in early tomorrow that I want to be up for. I should turn in soon.”
Ty looked at his watch. It was ten o’clock.
“Me too.” He sighed. “Look, I’m really sorry. I wanted this to be fun.”
“I didn’t need fun tonight. I just needed some company. Thank you for that.”
“I’d like to see you again.”
“I’m sure you will. It’s a small town.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know. I’m just not sure what’s going to happen. I’ve kinda got a schedule to keep.” Karen saw Ty’s face drop and she wanted to confide in him. She couldn’t tell him though. He wouldn’t believe her, and besides, it was her problem, not his.
“Whatever you want,” Ty said.
“What?” Karen was startled out of her thoughts.
“Whatever you want to happen…that’s what will happen.”
“I wish it were that simple. If it were that simple, then I’d definitely see you again…lots of times.”
“Why can’t it be that simple, Karen?” There was urgency in his voice. “I know we don’t know each other, but there’s something about this that feels like it’s supposed to be. I don’t want to turn my back on that feeling.”
“Bad timing.”
“Why?”
“I have to get some rest now, Ty.” Karen stood up, and Ty did the same. He kept her hand, and they walked to the door. To Karen, it was a sad good bye. She would be alone again. She pulled her hand away.
“Good night, Karen,” Ty turned to walk away.
Karen reached out and touched him on the shoulder. She hadn’t known she was going to do it, but when Ty turned around, she got closer to him and went up on her tippy toes to kiss him.
“Good-bye.”
CHAPTER FIFTEEN
May 5, Year Six
Craig Roberts was a mechanic, Learning’s best. He had an almost mystical way with things that ran, hummed, ticked or buzzed, and the people of Learning depended on him to keep their cars, tractors, televisions, vacuums and refrigerators towing the line. He had a workshop on Jackson Street that was always full of projects. It seemed that as soon as Craig got one thing fixed, six or seven other little problems would descend on him from above. He was always working, and he liked it that way, even if his wife didn’t.
Craig’s wife, Bernadette, was always trying to get him to hire one of those greasy, stupid boys from the high-school to help him cut through some of the work, so Craig would have more time to spend at home watching TV and making small talk. She just didn’t understand how much pride Craig took in his work. He liked the way people depended on him. It meant that he was important. Craig Roberts was a Learning necessity.
Craig and Bernadette had been married for twenty reasonably uneventful years, and Craig liked to say that the only reason his wife had been able to stand him for so long was that he wasn’t home all the time getting on her nerves, but Bernadette said she was lonely.
The Roberts never had children because when they talked about it early on, neither of them really wanted any or felt like they needed them, but Bernadette seemed to be in need of something these days. Now, Craig thought maybe they should have had kids. It would have given his wife something to do.
Sometimes, Bernadette came to the shop to answer the telephone, and sort out the bills (she was much better about math than Craig was), and sometimes when she was there, she would ask annoyingly simple questions about what this or that gizmo was and how one could be sure it was really meant to come off if you had to pull so hard on it. Craig usually ended up either ignoring her or being short with her, and he always felt guilty when she went home earlier than she had planned to.
Most of the time though, Bernadette simply stayed away. She said she didn’t feel comfortable there. It was like Craig’s private palace, and she felt like an intruder.
Bernadette spent most of her time at home, working in the garden or watching soap operas, or in town doing her shopping and gossiping with all the old ladies in front of Lucy Cohen’s grocery store. Craig wished that his wife would find something that gave her the same joy that he got from fixing things. Then she wouldn’t be so lonely, and he wouldn’t feel so guilty.
Tonight was Craig’s wedding anniversary, and as always, Bernadette had been reminding him about it all month. Craig was planning to pick up some flowers or some candy on the way home from work. He knew he should have done it sooner, but it wasn’t really going to matter. No matter what he got her, his wife was going to look disappointed and end up crying in the bathroom while she brushed her teeth. There was no point in spending a lot of time and effort just to end up feeling like a jerk.
Bernadette had made him promise to come home early for once, but Craig had gotten caught up with fixing Al Dreckner’s Ford station wagon. It was a real project, a twenty year old beater that hadn’t been driven for the last fifteen. Just about all the hoses needed replacing, the water pump was shot, and there was a steady oil leak. It was just the kind of thing Craig lived for.
Al had got it into his head somehow that his dad’s old wagon should be restored now that the old man was dead. Who knew what made people do the things they did, but Craig didn’t care. He was sure he could get that old babe running again, and the Dreckners weren’t hurting for money. This little project would keep food on the table for quite a while. Al was springing for a full set of brand new tires (all season radials) to boot.
Craig was so caught up in his project that he didn’t even notice the time passing by. All the other shops were closing. He wouldn’t be able to pick up even a small, meaningless token to give to his wife for their twentieth anniversary.
The station wagon was in the garage at the rear of the shop. Craig was under the hood, leaning over the engine and pulling off hoses when he heard the bells on the front door of the shop jingling.
“Just a minute,” he yelled. “I’ll be right with you.”
There was no response.
Craig picked up a dirty rag that was sitting on the back of an old, rusted metal folding chair in the garage and wiped his face and hands with it as he headed into the shop. It was a wasted effort. He was still covered in oil when he emerged from the garage.
Craig looked around the room for the person who had opened the door, but there were only broken TV’s and appliances there to greet him.
“Must’ve been the wind,” Craig mumbled absentmindedly as he turned to go back to his project. He didn’t even notice that it had gotten dark outside.
As he walked, Craig ran his greasy hand along the side of his head in an attempt to restore his long, uneven hair to a position that allowed him some peripheral vision. Bernadette had been bugging him about getting a haircut, but he just couldn’t seem to find a good time to go. He would have to take the scissors to it himself when he got home or the magical mood of the anniversary would be spoiled by his wife’s whining.
As he crossed the threshold back into the garage, Craig was suddenly overwhelmed by an intense dizziness. He put a hand on the door frame to steady himself, leaving a large oil stain on the white painted jam, and closed his eyes.
When Craig opened his eyes, everything in the room seemed different. Things seemed bigger. The shelves looked higher, and the walls seemed farther away. Craig closed his eyes again and shook his head. This time, when he opened his eyes, the effect had gotten much, much worse. The room seemed to be swimming up on him and then backing away. It was as if someone were bringing a photograph up close to his face and then moving it away again. The world seemed to be growing and shrinking while he remained the same.
The dizziness was just about mind boggling, but Craig was afraid to close his eyes again. He was afraid that if he closed them, he would end up completely dwarfed by the hugeness of the room, so he forced himself to keep his eyes open, and eventually the world seemed to settle on a size. Craig began a survey of the room and everything around him as well as himself.
The top of the door frame, which Craig had for years only barely managed to get under without bonking his head, now loomed above him by a good three feet. The frame had gotten wider as well as taller and seemed miles away from Craig on all sides.
When the dizziness started to fade a little, Craig was hit by an interesting possibility. Perhaps the room hadn’t gotten bigger at all. Perhaps, he was shrinking. That thought made him dizzy all over again, and he swayed a little on his feet. The giant room spun around him like a tornado. He couldn’t look at it anymore. He sat down on the floor and put his hands over his eyes.
The garage seemed to be filled with strange sounds that Craig had never heard before, loud buzzing and pounding and the occasional rustling of what sounded like a giant piece of paper.
Craig pulled his hands down off of his face and looked at the glass door at the back of the garage. An ominous shape moved in front of the door like a passing universe and stopped there, and at first Craig didn’t know what it was. It was terrifying though, the mere size of it. It took him a few seconds to take the whole thing in, to see the big picture. The terrible hulking presence that loomed just outside the door was a dog. Craig wasn’t sure, but he thought it was Sheriff Kemperson’s German shepherd, Willard. He couldn’t be sure though because the dog was too big for him to put the details together.
Looking at the dog and the size of everything around him, Craig figured he must now be only a bit larger than one of the spiders he’d seen creeping around the garage, not even as big as a G.I. Joe.
At first the idea of being so small overwhelmed him, but soon, Craig’s mechanical mind set to work, and he was more interested than afraid.
Craig often told Bernadette that the reason women never learned to fix cars was that they panicked too easily. They let themselves get overwhelmed by the problem, and then they couldn’t think anymore. Craig had learned about trouble shooting from his dad. First, you had to look at the symptoms. Then, you had to try and relate them to something else. Craig asked himself questions.
“What are the symptoms?”
“I got dizzy. Then I got small.”
“What types of things make a person dizzy?”
“Drugs, paint fumes, too much whiskey, being tired, not enough food.”
“Being tired… I’ve been up since early this morning, and I had a hard time sleeping last night. Maybe I got dizzy because I’m tired, and I haven’t eaten all day. What about the other symptom?”
“I’ve never heard of anybody shrinking before. Sometimes, people lose a lot of weight, but this is a little too much. Clothes shrink when you use water. Sponges shrink when they dry up, but people don’t shrink.”
“Hmmm, well, maybe I’m just dreaming. Maybe I passed out.”
There really was no other explanation for what had happened. People don’t shrink. Now, the question was how to wake up. Craig decided that the best way was to close his eyes and try to go to sleep. Then, when he woke up, he would be okay. It was something to try anyway, so he lay down in the doorway and closed his eyes.
When his eyelids met, there was a huge explosion. Tools started falling off the walls of the garage, and some of the TVs in the shop fell over. Craig got up and ran into the garage. A screw driver landed with a bang right behind him. He ran as fast as he could with the tools that now seemed gigantic falling everywhere.
It seemed like such a long way to run, but Craig thought if he could just get under the station wagon, he would be safe. He had to climb over a huge pair of pliers and run around a hammer that had fallen into his path, and by the time he made it to the wagon he was sweating and out of breath, but he was safe.
It was like being on a shooting range under that wagon. Every time something hit the ground, it made Craig’s tiny ear drums scream and throb. He curled up into a ball and pressed his hands against his ears.
After a few minutes, Craig became aware of another sound. It was louder than all the other noises and by far the most disturbing. It was creaking. Craig looked around. Everything was so big that it was hard for him to tell if anything around him had changed. Then he heard the sound again. He knew what it was now.
When Craig looked up, he could see the underside of the giant auto shifting. It looked to him as if the ceiling was falling.
Craig had taken the tires off the station wagon and jacked it up enough so that he could work easily from underneath the car as well as over the engine. The sound he was hearing was the jacks giving way.
Craig was so small he figured that even if the wagon did come down, it wouldn’t touch him, not even if he had been standing up, but just to avoid watching the crash and to be safe from any flying shrapnel, Craig hit the deck, face down.
The sound of the station wagon coming down was so loud, Craig felt like his ear drums were going to split open. He was practically pushing the palms of his hands into his brain, but even that didn’t make a bit of difference. Craig thought there could be no pain greater than what he was experiencing at that moment, but then something unfortunate happened.
At the very instant that the jacks gave completely, Craig magically regained his normal size. He was a big man, about six four and well on his way to three hundred pounds. He was crushed by the falling auto.
No one ever came up with a good explanation for Craig being crushed face down under Al Dreckner’s Ford. It was just one more thing in Learning that didn’t make any sense, and no one said much about it.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN
June 2
Karen was still in the habit of making her after hours visits to spy on the old woman (Mrs. Fletcher had remained her only suspect as a possible harborer of spirits), and she had yet to see a single thing that was out of the ordinary.
Karen wondered again if maybe she was on a wild ghost chase that her own mind had sent her on to alleviate the boredom of being single. She wondered what her ex-husband would say if he knew what she was up to. Mark would probably be taking steps to have her committed. After all, how much more insane of a story could there be?
Karen decided to give the stake out business one more night, after which, she would get on with her life. If nothing happened tonight, she would call Ty, and maybe the two of them could leave Learning together.

Karen had noticed Ty driving by her place several times over the last few months (she would give him a noncommittal wave, and he would keep driving), and she and Ty had small talked over the phone a few times, but mostly, Karen brushed him off. She didn’t want to get Ty involved with her problems, especially if it turned out to be nothing. She didn’t want to explain her situation to him if she didn’t need to, but she didn’t want to lie to him either. It was easier not to talk to him at all.
As she drove along the lonesome black road to the old woman’s house, Karen allowed her mind to drift, as it had done so often lately, to that evening she’d spent with Ty. She found herself beginning to trust him, in a way she hadn’t thought possible. She was developing feelings for Ty, feelings that worried her.
Ty wasn’t just another guy who wanted to test his limits with a pretty girl. Karen thought that Ty had maybe fallen in love with her, but all of that was clouding her path. She wasn’t in Learning for romance. She had a job to do…Maybe.
The responsible part of Karen wished that Ty would stop calling her, but the larger part of her hoped that he wouldn’t give up. Maybe it was possible that when things were normal, the two of them could have a future.

Karen’s was the only car on the unlit street that was lined with a thick growth of the tallest evergreens she had ever seen. It had rained earlier this afternoon, and the street was still wet in spots. The light from her headlights reflected up at her and made Karen think of alien space crafts filled with evil, bug eyed extraterrestrials swooping down to earth to capture human subjects for their twisted experiments. She shivered.
Tonight was a school night, and in Learning that meant that almost everyone was in bed by ten o’clock. It was eerily quiet, and Karen was almost relieved when it started to rain again. It started as just a sprinkle, but by the time she got to her spot, it was pouring.
Karen parked her car off to the side of the road, behind some trees about ten yards away from the house. Her little Taurus was well hidden. It was almost the same color as the trees, but it was too dark to tell anyway.

Learning was a small town by population, but by area, it was really quite large. Things were spread out. There was a center pocket of houses and stores and such, but most of the people lived on fairly secluded parcels of land.
Mrs. Fletcher’s house was the only one for a mile in either direction. It was the only source of light beyond the stars and the tiny sliver of a moon, and Karen was nervous as she was always about walking around in the dark by herself, more nervous even that she had been in New York. At least there she had known what to expect. In Learning, all bets were off.
Karen walked around the back of the house and up the driveway, trying her best to be quiet. Her tennis shoes made scrunching noises as she walked.
Karen had gone out several times now but never any later than eleven, and she’d always found the old woman at home and awake.

Mrs. Fletcher’s was one of the largest houses in Learning. It was three full stories off the ground. Karen couldn’t imagine that ancient looking woman even making it all the way up the second flight of stairs let alone getting up into that attic. There were probably a lot of happy-go-lucky spiders up there living lives not at all tainted by the hunt for witches or conversations with dead fathers.
The huge yard surrounding the house was overgrown with weeds and wild bushes, but it was still pretty clear that someone had once put a lot of thought into the landscaping. There were bushes, some kind of evergreen that lined the entire house which obviously hadn’t been pruned for some time, but were exactly placed at equal distances from the house.
Karen walked hunched over in between the bushes and the house from the back to the side and then to the front. She positioned herself under the big picture window in the front of the house where she could see almost perfectly through the delicate, white lace curtains.

The old woman was sitting in a rocking chair watching the TV that was near the window. Karen could see her face quite clearly. She was the picture of a sweet grandmother. Karen could understand why Ty had such a hard time imagining this woman a witch. She was so small, and her dark, spotted face was deeply wrinkled. She looked like a prune.
The old woman’s completely grey hair was pulled up into a loose, imperfect bun. Her feet, all bedecked in dusty black orthopedic, grandma shoes were crossed at the ankle, and her bony hands were folded in her lap. She held her face in a weary expression that seemed to complain of another long, dull, painful day that would lead into possibly hundreds more just like it. Her face wore hopelessness…despair, and it made Karen more certain than ever that she had made a big mistake.
Mrs. Fletcher seemed so harmless and so alone that Karen was half tempted to knock on the front door with some excuse about being lost or lonely herself just to spend some time with the woman and perhaps brighten her night a little. She was stupid to be out there crouching in the cold and dark.

Karen was freezing. It was June, but the rain was coming down in huge, heavy buckets, and there was a winter like chill in the air. She looked down at her soaked feet and could barely see them in the light from the window, and it was getting so she could barely feel them. It was time to go home.
The light in the living room went off unexpectedly, and suddenly it was dark. There was only a little light coming from one of the other rooms. Karen couldn’t see Mrs. Fletcher anymore, but after a minute, she heard the front door open. Karen’s view of the front door was blocked by the bush she was hiding behind, so she couldn’t see what was going on, but after only a few seconds, she heard the door close again.
The rain took on an unusual pattern. It sounded like footsteps on the sidewalk behind her. It was very strange, but then it had been a strange year.
Karen sneaked back around the house and ran back to her car. She didn’t see the old woman walking briskly down the street even faster than Karen was running.
When she made it home, soaking from head to toe and feeling disappointed and relieved all at the same time, Karen’s first thought was to run herself a hot bath and forget about things for an hour or so. She decided she would call Ty first thing in the morning. If he still wanted to see her, she would be available.

Karen could feel the tension sliding off of her and into the water after only a few minutes in the tub. She fell asleep almost instantly with an image of Ty kissing her goodnight at the front of her mind. When she awoke, the water was cold, and her skin was wrinkled. She was like a big, pale brown prune, but even at that, she felt far more relaxed than she had in weeks.
She got out of the tub shivering. She wrapped herself in a towel and turned on the little space heater that she kept on the bathroom floor in the corner next to the door. It didn’t take her long to warm up and get dressed for bed.
Once in bed, Karen had no trouble going back to sleep, but it was only a few minutes before she woke to the clicking.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
June 2
Karen’s father, Karl Penwalski was standing in front of her, his whole upper body now covered in a thick purple blanket of blood. There were cockroaches in his hair and on his shoulders. Some were crawling over his chest. They were munching away at him and crawling over each other’s hard insect backs…clicking.
Instead of being afraid of the apparition that stood so horribly before her or feeling sad for the agony of this man who had been her father, Karen was overtaken by sulking anger and disappointment. She had believed that she was going to have a chance to be happy again, normal again. Now, she knew that wasn’t going to be possible.

“You did the right thing, Karen,” her father said in a voice that sounded somehow unstable.
“I’m not sure anymore,” Karen replied trying to hide the anger in her voice.
“You mustn’t be fooled by the nice, old lady. She is the one possessed. She is being held prisoner in her own body. The Occupants are there, and they are more powerful than ever.”

Over the next several minutes, Karl told Karen everything he knew about M. Fletcher. First of all, that was not her real name. She was Mahogany Fisher, and she had supposedly died in a fire at a rest home back in Shilo, Massachusetts almost ten years ago.
The swarm came to her when she was bitter and dying. They came as bees, and now they were torturing her and using her as a vehicle for their insanity.
In four months, the swarm must leave Mahogany and go to Coeur d’Alene where their next victim was waiting. They must enter that person between ten o’clock and eleven o’clock on October tenth or not at all. That was the way it had been for centuries.

“What would happen if we killed the old woman?” Karen asked from her huddled position on the bed. She was surprised at how quickly her mind had turned to murder…and maybe she could murder someone if it meant this nightmare would be over. At least in prison she might be able to finish a painting without worrying about saving the world.
“There is no way to kill her, and if you were to try, the swarm would kill you. They are very powerful as long as they are within her body.”
“Then why are they hiding? If they are indestructible, why do they care who knows about them?” Karen’s skin was itching again.
“The malicious are always sneaky. That’s why they get away with so much. The good are so busy singing, doing deeds and being a light to the rest of humanity that those who want to harm the cause of goodness always know who the important targets are.
The Occupants know that if people see that the old woman is possessed and causing harm, they will fear her and run from her. Her fate will become known. Then when it comes time for the transfer, the next victim might refuse them because that person would know their intensions.”
“And if they are refused, they die?”
“That’s right. They have one hour, and if when the clock strikes eleven on the tenth day of the tenth month of the tenth year, the swarm does not enter the chosen host, they will lose power and cease to exist.”
Karen heard blood dripping onto the wood floor. It sounded like rain. She wondered if there would be a stain there in the morning.
“It can only be that one person? They can’t change their minds?”
“They can’t change their minds because it’s not them who makes that decision in the first place.”
“Then who is it?”
“I don’t know. They don’t know. Maybe it’s a force even more twisted, or maybe it’s God or Fate. I don’t know who this is all for. I only know that The Occupants have just one year to make sure that the person is low enough to accept the swarm as a source of hope. That’s how their part of this game is played.”

“And you think I can stop them?” Karen said, looking directly at the apparition.
“You must find out who that next victim is to be, and you must convince that person to deny them access.”
“Would you have denied them if someone told you? Would you have believed them?”
“You have to make the person believe you, Honey. It’s the only way.”
“How will I find them?”
“I don’t know. That’s up to you. I have faith in you, Karen. I know you’ll think of something.”
“But she never leaves the house.” Karen’s voice was rising. “No one has seen her in town for the last eight years.”
“You saw her leave last night.”
“What?”
“The Occupants can mask her body so that she is only seen by those who are absolutely certain she’s there. Your doubt made her invisible to you.” Karl paused and wiped at his face with his hand. The newly white patch of forehead was quickly re-covered with blood.
“It was the same way with me,” he continued. “I could walk unnoticed into the homes of strangers, the people the swarm killed while they were with me. Those people couldn’t see me because they weren’t expecting me. People in Learning don’t expect to see the old woman because they believe she’s wasting away in that big house on the hill.”

“If I follow her, she’ll notice me. I’m not a private detective, for God’s sake. I’m going to blow it!” Karen was almost screaming now.
“You’re right to be afraid Karen. There is a good chance you won’t be successful, and you could die. Even your being in this town right now puts you in danger, and I am so sorry that I had to bring you to this. I couldn’t let your mother’s death be for nothing. Without your intervention, another person, and maybe hundreds more people will make the choice I made, and they will regret it more than you could possibly regret trying to stop this. The worse that can happen to you is that you die trying, but I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think you had a chance.
You see Karen, there are greater powers at work here. This is our chance to change the balance. We could put an end to a sickness that has been on this earth since the beginning of time, and that would affect people all over the world. People could be less afraid of each other, more trusting. We could make the world a better, safer place. If we fail, things will go on as they have been-maybe even get worse- but if we succeed…”
To Karen the words her father spoke melted into a meaningless drone. He sounded like a boring speaker at a political rally, and she was suddenly consumed by the anger that she was trying so hard to keep hidden from him. She was not the one who allowed herself to be possessed. She was not the one who lied to her family and murdered people. She was not the one who got her mother murdered. It wasn’t fair that she should have to risk everything to make it right.
“I don’t know if I want the fate of the world resting on my shoulders.” She said it not even sure if her father was still talking. “I have a lot to lose here. You have nothing to lose. You’ve been dead for years, and I’m not even as old as you were when you died. I haven’t even had my life yet. I hate you for making the choices you made, no matter why you think you made them. You made them because it was easier than fighting your disease and living with who you were. I don’t want to die some horrible death like my mother did, and I hate you for making something like that possible. You’re my nightmare, and I despise you!”
Karen’s justified anger overwhelmed her, and she felt a coarse shell of hatred working its way over her skin. It felt spiny and cold like a suit of self-righteous armor. She knew she couldn’t live within its boundaries and that knowing made her cry. She cried for her lost childhood and for the life she should be having now. Then she stopped.
There was silence.
“Then you refuse?” Karl said finally.

When Karen looked at her father again, she noticed that the blood covering him had thickened. He looked as if he was wearing a red mask and a blood stained shirt, and somehow, he seemed further away.
“How can I? I can’t refuse. You’ve trapped me, just like those spirits trapped you.” The despair was about to swallow her up now. Maybe she would pass out and wake up to normalcy.
“I…You’re right. I didn’t realize it was like that, but you’re right. I will have killed both of you. I was wrong to come here. If you leave Learning now, you can escape all of this. You can get out. It’s what you should do, Karen. You should get out.”
“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try. You know that.” Her voice softened. “Tell me the rest.”
“If you stay here, there may be no turning back for you.”
“I won’t turn back.”
Karen and her father shared a long silence during which everything and nothing was said. They expressed their love and their sorrow and fear. Karl broke it with remorse.
“The Occupants know who their next victim will be. Soon, they will go to him or her and start arranging a down fall. They have a lot to do. They will have to make arrangements for the victim to move to another town where they won’t be well known.”
“We moved to Boston.”
“Yes.”
“Where will they go next?”
“From Coeur d’Alene, the swarm will go to San Antonio, Texas and live there for ten years. Once they find all they need to know about their next vessel, they’ll go to San Antonio and make arrangements for the move. They have to do all this while they are still inside Mrs. Fisher.”
“How will they travel?”
“I don’t know. When I came to Learning to buy the old Tanner place for Mrs. Fisher, there was a lot of walking, and there was a plane.”
“Why don’t they just float or something?”
“Because they don’t have that power. They can only fly when they are in between bodies in one of the small flying creatures, and they can only be outside on the day of the transfer. As long as they are in the old woman’s body, they can only see what her eyes see and hear only what her ears hear and go only where her body can take them. They can go very quickly because they don’t feel pain or fatigue.
The Occupants are limited by the body of the victim, but they use her brain waves to create things beyond them. They don’t have to touch the people they kill or the things they move. They can make anything that can be imagined happen outside the body, but they have to be near the things they’re creating. I suppose they could have flown on some inanimate structure like a chair or a car, but that would not have been inconspicuous.”

“Maybe I could talk to the old woman.” Karen said. “Couldn’t she refuse to let them do it or think of something else?”
“No, Darling. They don’t need her permission anymore. She gave it to them when she let them in. I know she must be trying to stop them, as I did, and as thousands before me tried, but the swarm has too much control. There is only the one way.”
“Get the next victim to refuse them…What would happen if the next victim died before he had a chance to accept them?” Back to murder so quickly.
“I’m not sure, Karen, but I think if you murder someone to stop the darkness, you would be breaking the rules. The act of murder is evil in itself. I don’t know it, but I believe that if you killed that person, whatever good came because of it, would be tainted or snatched away. There is only one right way to do this. I don’t want you to try if you’re not sure. I won’t think any less of you if you walk away right now.”
“Will you help me, Daddy?”
“I don’t think I can, but if I’m allowed, I will come back.”
“Are you leaving?” All of a sudden, Karen didn’t want her father to go. She didn’t want to be alone, even if it meant being with a corpse.
“Yes, I have to. It’s not right for me to linger in this world so long, and it’s hard for me.”

“Are you in Hell?”
“There is no Hell, Karen. Everyone gets what they truly believe they deserve.”
“And you feel you deserve to be tortured like this?”
“I could have stopped it.”
“If I stop it, will you set yourself free?”
He shrugged, and his presence seemed to fade. He was almost transparent.
“You never answered my other question.” Karen said.
“What’s that, Karen?” He seemed exhausted. His words came out with puffs of air.
“If someone had told you, would you have listened?”
Her father disappeared completely before Karen finished asking her question, but his answer floated on the air for what seemed like an eternity after he was gone.
“No.”

I watched the glee while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the Gods they made…
Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name, but what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game…
Mick Jagger: 1960’s

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
July 10, Year Four
When the lights went out, Fiona Mullingar was sitting at the piano, right in the middle of a spurt of creative genius. She was trying to make the most of her time alone.
It was a kind of tradition in the Mullingar house. Every year Fiona’s husband Vick took the kids away for a week during the summer and left Fiona to do some things she’d been putting off all year.
Fiona and Vick had three children. Paul was the oldest at fifteen. He was small for his age and always seemed to be overcompensating by getting into big trouble. He wanted to fit in with the other eighth graders, but never really seemed to manage. Paul’s two younger sisters, Barb and Teresa (twelve and ten, respectively) were often the victims of Paul’s attempts at bigness. Barb was almost as big as Paul, and she was now doing pretty well at holding her own with her brother the bully. Still Fiona found herself spending a lot of time refereeing the fights that went on. Maybe she should get Paul some counseling.
Really though, they were all pretty good kids and most of the time Fiona was happy for her decision to stay home and raise them. Sometimes, she just needed a break.
Vick was a solid, decent man. He was a good husband, and a good father, all be it a little boring and overly predictable. He was clean and orderly, maybe even a little anal, and he loved his kids. Fiona supposed that no one had a right to ask for any more than that.
Vick was on vacation from the hospital. He was the laboratory supervisor at Learning General. He had been for the past twelve years.
Learning General was a pretty small hospital by most standards. Learning’s critical patients usually ended up in Coeur d’Alene. Vick’s job was mostly routine. He had four technologists to supervise though and he worked directly with the doctors on a lot of local cases. Everyone respected Vick Mullingar. He took his job seriously and did it well. Fiona respected him too.
During the week, Fiona didn’t see that much of her husband. He left early in the morning and didn’t come home until six or seven at night. By then, all he wanted to do was eat dinner and watch TV before he went to bed.
Weekends were pretty nice though. The Mullingars always tried to do something fun as a family on weekends. Sometimes, they rented movies or went bowling or out for pizza-nothing wild-but it was time well spent.
Fiona spent most of her days cleaning, cooking, and driving her kids all over the place. Both of the girls were so into their extra-curricular activities that Fiona felt she spent more time being a cheerleader than she spent being a person. She always thought that when the kids got older, she would be able to take more time for herself, but it never seemed to be time for that. That’s why her week in the summer was so important.
Sometimes, Fiona felt left out when her family went off for their week away from Mom. This time though, Vick had the kids out camping in the mountains, and Fiona had absolutely no desire to do that. She’d hated that particular kind of fun ever since she was a little girl. There were too many noises and too many things crawling around on the ground. Fiona could never understand how people were able to sleep when the only thing protecting them from the outside world was a little piece of canvas. She didn’t mind missing this year’s outing one bit. Besides, she would have her chance to spend some quality time with the kids soon.
Vick got three weeks of vacation time every year. One week he spent alone with the kids. One he spent all by himself, and one week the Mullingars spent as a family.
Vick had gone to visit his older sister in Great Falls last week, and next week the whole family was going to Seattle just to hang out and see the sights. Fiona was looking forward to that.
Fiona was on only her second day of alone time. So far she had gone through some old journals and high-school yearbooks. She found a picture of herself at the big spaghetti feed her junior year. She looked so carefree with her big Cosmo make-over hair and spaghetti hanging all down her chin. She was a whole different person. The person she had been then never would have accepted only one week a year to be herself.
The walk down memory lane got Fiona thinking about the things that were important to her before she got married and the things she wanted to do with her life like pursuing a career in music.
Fiona started playing the piano when she was about five years old, and everyone always said that she was talented. “Blessed,” some even said. When she got older, if she wasn’t on dates with young, frivolous men, hanging out with her girlfriends or complaining to her parents about what old fuddy-duddies they were, Fiona was at the piano, playing and dreaming.
The plan was to get away to some big city and become a famous concert pianist. She even started composing what was to be the world’s greatest piano concerto. Then, near the end of her senior year, she started dating Vick. It was the end of an era.
Vick was on the basketball team, a local hero actually. He was as popular as Fiona herself. It was strange they hadn’t dated sooner. They traveled in some of the same circles and most of the guys Fiona dated had at some point dated most of the girls Vick dated. Somehow the two had managed to miss each other up until the end.
When Vick asked her out, Fiona’s whole life changed. The fantasies she had for herself changed. She stopped thinking about being a famous big city piano player and started thinking about being a wife and mother, married to Vick Mullingar, the first boy she had ever really loved. The rest was history.
Fiona married Vick two weeks after graduation and moved away with him to Boise for four years while he got his degree. When Vick was certified, they moved back to Learning and bought a house. They’d been here ever since.
When she and Vick were first married, Fiona continued to play and study as if nothing had changed, as if she could still one day come into her own as a professional. Once she had Paul though, there wasn’t enough time. Pretty soon she was going for weeks without playing at all. It was true what they said about using it or losing it. Fiona was losing it.
Looking at all those pictures and awards from her glory days, Fiona decided right then and there that she was going to finish her concerto…this week, and she was going to make time for her music from now on. She was going to get her dream back. It didn’t matter that she was thirty-nine years old. Dreams shouldn’t be allowed to die. So she sat herself down at the piano her grandmother had given her for her sixteenth birthday and started to play.
It was frustrating, not being able to play as well as she remembered, but it was also exhilarating. Things were starting to come back. She played through the first part of her concerto-the part she remembered- and was just about to take the yellow pencil out of her mouth and add a new line when the lights went out.
Fiona turned around and looked out the window. It was dark out, but the street lights that decorated each corner were lit. The other houses on the street still seemed to have power as well.
This was not something new to Fiona. In the last three months, the lights had gone out four times. Each time, all it took to fix the problem was Vick going down into the cellar and flipping the circuit breaker on again. Vick was going to take a closer look at it any day now for the past two months. He just never got around to it.
Fiona didn’t care at all for that cellar. It was dark and musty. She was sure it had to be crawling with spiders. She never went down there unless she had too, but she supposed that now was one of those times when she had to.
She scooted the piano bench away from the piano (it made a scraping sound against the black and white almost looks like marble, linoleum) and reluctantly stood up.
She found her way into the kitchen by dragging her hands along the wall and being careful not to lift her feet too high. In the top drawer just to the left and below the sink, Fiona found the flashlight that was almost always there. It was the one flashlight that didn’t get chosen for the great Mullingar camping trip. Fiona hoped the batteries were still good.
She pushed up on the control, and a bright beam of light shot out in front of her. To be on the safe side (this was the cellar we were talking about), Fiona dug around in the drawer until she found an unopened packet of two Eveready C sized batteries. She put them into the oversized pocket of her red, white and blue sundress.
Fiona followed the beam of the flashlight passed the matching, brick red oven and refrigerator to the door that led to nowhere but the dark, musty cellar. It was the door next to the pantry. It occurred to her then that she hadn’t been in the cellar by herself for over ten years. There was always Vick or one of the children with her before. She took a deep breath and put her hand on the knob.
With the opening of the cellar door Fiona’s self split into two separate entities. There was the part of her that was conscious and meaningful, and there was the part that was physical and alive. The conscious part of Fiona stood in the doorway and watched as her body in the red, white and blue sundress and green and yellow house slippers, continued on auto pilot onto the first step that led down to the cellar.
“No! Stop!” It was strange to speak and not feel her lips move. The sound was out there somehow though. But it wasn’t having an impact. She watched in horror as her body stumbled down the stairs. Her left foot tripped over her right foot and sent the rest of the vacant body tumbling. Her long, grey streaked, black hair whipped around her face and got into her eyes and mouth. The body landed at the bottom of the stairs. Fiona ran down after it.
Somehow, the floor of the cellar had gotten wet. There was about three inches of water. Fiona could see the water because it reflected the light from the flashlight which had landed on one of the steps about halfway down. Fiona was standing in the water but she couldn’t feel it. She knew it had to be cold though. Water on the floors of cellars was always cold…and dirty.
Her body was lying in it.
There was a splashing sound that started a few seconds later. It sounded as if fairly large rocks were falling from the rafters and into the water. Fiona couldn’t see anything at first, but soon, she saw a small army of rats the size of honey dew melons wading toward her still body from the corner of the cellar that was farthest from the stairs. Her first thought was to save her helpless body. She ran at the rats, screaming and flailing her arms, but the furry monsters had no awareness of her. There were about fifteen wet rodents climbing up onto her legs and heading up to her abdomen (and toward her face).
Fiona was mesmerized and couldn’t turn away. The rats bit at her, taking away large hunks of flesh from every part of her presumably cold and wet corpse. Her body was becoming unrecognizable. Blood was gurgling out of a hundred dime sized holes and trickling into the dark water.
Fiona felt the shock of a strong force pushing on her shoulders from behind, but when she turned around, there was nothing and no one to be seen. Something was pushing her down closer to her body, and Fiona knew right away what was about to happen. She’d left her body, and now she was being forced back in. She didn’t want back in though. If she went back, she would feel the water and the pain and the rats. She would rather spend an eternity as a ghost than to go back into that body and feel those rats, but this was not a choice.
It didn’t take long at all before she was back inside. She could feel the tiny feet slapping against the bare skin on her arms and legs and the sharp rat teeth stabbing into her like salad forks ripping away at her muscle trying to get down deeper into her where the good stuff was stored.
Fiona couldn’t do anything but stare up at the ceiling. A vision of her family out in the woods flashed across her mind, and when it cleared, Fiona saw that there was someone looking down at her. It was the Fletcher woman, the elderly woman who live alone in that big old house. Mrs. Fletcher was laughing, but something in her eyes looked sad.

CHAPTER NINETEEN
June 3
When Karen got to the window it was almost six o’clock and the beginning of yet another cold night. Karen wasn’t used to weather like this. It was colder now, it seemed, than it had been back in March. It was a different kind of cold than what she knew from the east coast. Something about the mountain air she guessed. It made her sleepy all the time.
It was risky business, going out so early in the evening to spy on the old woman, but it was time to take some risks. Karen had been in Learning way too long and accomplished way too little. It was time to make a move and make a plan.
She found Mrs. Fisher a.k.a. Fletcher sitting once again in front of the television set. She was wearing a black dress with an old fashioned lace collar under a pink sweater with big, yellow nobs and little green leaves all over it. Her feet which were clad in their usual scuffed up, black orthopedics were crossed at the ankles.
The solitary woman was watching the local news, and this time, she was crying. Her shoulders were heaving up and down, and her face was a mass of deep crevices. Her dark hands were folded in her lap and they twitched as if receiving the occasional electrical shock.
Karen’s heart ached for the poor, old woman who was being tortured in her own body. It was the same for Karen’s father and it had to be stopped.
Karen was going to try to get up closer to the window without being seen, but her attention was diverted by a whimpering sound that came from the direction of the front door. She moved around the bush that was her camouflage and saw a small, black kitten sitting on the doorstep. It was mewing and crying sickly for someone to let it in out of the cold. This new scene only added to the despair of the moment. Karen wanted to go and get the kitten, but she knew she didn’t dare.
It started to rain again. This time, Karen was wearing rubber boots and a rain coat, complete with cap. She felt guilty being so well protected while the kitten was suffering. It was scratching on the door now and mewing louder than Karen would have thought possible for such a little thing.
The old woman got up from her chair and walked in robot like fashion to the door. Karen had to reposition herself so as not to be seen.
Mahogany was surprisingly upright and sturdy to Karen for being such an old woman. She seemed almost rigid, and her footsteps were deliberate. It was as if she had to concentrate on each step. She would take a step and stop, then another and stop. Karen imagined the struggle going on within the woman’s mind. She probably wanted to let the kitten into the warmth of the house, so she could dry it off and feed it, and The Occupants wanted to let it die in the rain.

Karen was wrong. Mahogany wanted more than anything at that moment to leave the kitten alone. Eventually, it would get tired and go away. At least it would have a chance then, and if it died, its death would be much kinder than the death the swarm would impose. She tried with everything she had to keep them from going. Even though it made her head throb with pain she tried to stop them. There was no way. She couldn’t even slow them down. They approached the kitten slowly as another way of mocking Mahogany.
The Occupants were laughing. They didn’t care at all for the feeble little wretch camped out on the doorstep. They only bothered with it because they could see how much it was bothering Mahogany, and it had been a slow day so far. They had complete access to Mahogany’s memories, so they knew the story of Polly.

When Mahogany was seven years old, she found a beautiful, perfectly black cat sitting on the doorstep of the house she shared with her mother and father in Boston. She fell in love with it right away, and she wanted to keep it. Her parents made her put an ad in the paper to try and locate the owners, but they said if no one claimed the cat, Mahogany could keep it. After a month they stopped running the ad, and Mahogany prayed to thank God for sending her a cat. She named her Polly.
Polly was Mahogany’s best friend for the next two years. She was the first thing the little girl looked for when she got home from school or from playing with her friends. Not once did her parents have to remind her to put food and water out or to clean the litter. Mahogany wanted her cat to be comfortable, so she did those chores lovingly. Mahogany spent hours petting Polly and pulling string around for her to chase, and Polly reciprocated by pouring affection on the little girl at every opportunity.
Polly met Mahogany at the door as soon as she came home and followed her around the house the whole time she was there. Polly slept all curled up on the little girl’s pillow and she sat on her lap when the family watched TV. Mahogany thought Polly was watching TV too.
Mahogany was very protective of Polly. She never let the cat go outside by herself. The Reid’s had a fenced yard that was pretty much Polly proof, but Mahogany never took the chance. Polly always stayed close to Mahogany anyway. She was the perfect pet.
One day, when Mahogany got home from school and was not met at the door by her four pawed welcoming committee, she went into her bedroom and found Polly lying on her pillow. She went over to give the usual “home from school petting, but was greeted only with silence and stillness.
“Mommy, come quick! Something’s wrong with Polly!”
When Mahogany’s mother came into the room, she put her hand on Polly. Mahogany still remembered the look on her mother’s face (the swarm remembered it too). She put her hands on Mahogany’s shoulders and said, “I’m sorry, Honey. Polly has gone to heaven. She’s dead. We should bury her.”
In retrospect, it seemed unlikely that Mahogany’s mother, a normally sympathetic woman and perfect mother, would have spoken those exact words to a nine year old child, but that’s exactly how Mahogany remembered it.
Mahogany released the kind of shrill, piercing scream that only very young children who’ve suffered great loss have the power to release. She balled up her right fist and punched her mother as hard as she could, right in the stomach. The blow was hard enough to make Mrs. Reid lose her balance a little, but she did not cry out.
“You don’t know she’s dead! You’re not a doctor. Why would you want to tell me she’s dead? Polly isn’t dead. You’re not a doctor!”
Mahogany kept screaming like that while her mother who was holding her stomach with both hands waited patiently for the storm to subside.
When Mahogany was hoarse and tired from screaming and was simply crouching on the floor by the bed, her mother put one hand onto her daughter’s shoulder and said, “Okay, we’ll take her to the vet.”
Mrs. Reid got one of the royal blue monogrammed towels from the bathroom cupboard (it was one of the brand new set specifically purchased for the use of guests) and wrapped it around the cat. Mahogany insisted on carrying her friend to the car herself. She held it in her lap the whole way. She gently stroked the towel and spoke in soothing tones.
“It’s okay Polly. You’re gonna be fine.” Mahogany sniffled and cried…and tried to soothe her pet. She wouldn’t even look at her mother.
When they got to the pet emergency clinic, Mrs. Reid spoke with the receptionist. She was an old, hunched over woman in a dark green sweater with red balls of lint clinging to the front. Mahogany remembered that.
Pretty soon, a veterinarian came out of a room behind the front desk. She walked over to Mahogany who was sitting with the dead cat on her lap.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Morden. What’s your name?”
She seemed like a nice woman, but she didn’t have a very smart name. Mahogany wasn’t sure she was really qualified to handle a case of this magnitude, but then, she supposed that you had to be pretty smart to make it all the way through vet school.
“I’m Mahogany. This is Polly. Mommy says she’s dead.” She shot a hateful glance over to her mother.
“Why don’t you bring her back into the examining room?” The doctor gestured toward a door marked “A” that was just beyond the reception desk and the old woman in the ugly sweater.
Mahogany followed closely behind the doctor, still fighting back tears. Her mother followed a few steps behind. The pain must have subsided because she no longer held her stomach.
Once in the examining room, Dr. Morden took Polly from Mahogany and laid her on a table and removed the blue towel.
“She was very pretty. Wasn’t she?”
“She was beautiful,” Mahogany said, wiping some tears from her face. “She was my best friend.”
“I want to show you something.” Dr. Morden picked up a stethoscope from the top of a cupboard that was near the examining table. She handed it to Mahogany.
“Put these in your ears and come over here.” She knelt down in front of the little girl and put the bell of the stethoscope up to her own chest. “Do you hear my heart beat, Mahogany?”
“Yes.”
“Now, see if you can find yours.”
Mahogany put the instrument up to her chest and listened.
“There it is,” she said. “I can hear it.”
“Now, try to find Polly’s heartbeat. I’ll show you. Polly’s heart is right here.”
Mahogany stood there a moment, afraid of going near her cat with the cold metal thing. She didn’t want Polly to know there was something wrong. The doctor waited patiently with her hand on the cat. She was looking at Mahogany.
Mahogany knew that there was no getting around this. She would have to do it sooner or later. She went over and put the stethoscope up to her cat’s body and listened as hard as she could. She moved it around several times, hoping against hope that she would hear a tiny beat, but there was nothing. She took the stethoscope off and started crying.
She stood for a moment letting the reality soak in, then ran over to where her mother was standing with tears in her eyes and hugged her.
“I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“It’s okay, Honey. I know it hurts.”
Mahogany wrapped Polly up in the towel, and they took her home. When they got there, Mahogany’s father was home from work. The three of them went out into the back yard, and Mahogany helped dig a small grave. She was crying the whole time and praying that God would let Polly come back.
The worst part was when they put the dirt on Polly and she started to disappear. Then her best friend was gone. Mahogany cried on and off for almost two months, and sometimes, even in her old age, she still felt sad about it.
After Polly died, Mahogany wouldn’t let her parents get another pet. She didn’t want to get attached to another animal just to see it die. She never had another pet, although she always carried a soft spot in her heart for small furry creatures.
The demons could see Polly in Mahogany’s mind, and they wanted her to feel that pain again.

Karen heard the front door open, and after a moment she could see the woman back in her living room, standing in front of the rocking chair. The cat was sitting on the hard wood floor in front of her. It was still shivering, and now, looking up at Mahogany expectantly. The old woman’s face had gone totally blank.
The kitten was mewing up a storm. Karen could hear it all the way outside, yet the woman inside seemed oblivious to it. She stood over the poor, sickly creature staring icicles.
Time stood still. The cat shivered and whined, and the old woman stared down at it. Karen couldn’t imagine what was going on between the two of them. Then she saw a change.
The kitten’s mid-section hunched upward lifting his belly off the polished hard wood floor. Soon he seemed to be standing on tippy toes or tippy paws might be the appropriate terminology. Karen had never seen anything like this before. It looked like the cat was trying to grasp the floor and hold itself down, but there was nothing to grasp. His back just kept hunching higher and higher until finally the most terrifying and amazing thing happened.
The cat completely left the floor. He rose magically up and up into the air like a hooked fish being pulled out of the water. Karen sucked in a gust of wet air and almost choked on it, but the woman standing just slightly taller than the cat was now floating didn’t even blink.
The cat was suspended just about even with the woman’s chest. Its legs were kicking like it was trying to run, but it couldn’t go anywhere. Some of his wet fur seemed to be getting longer right in front of Karen’s eyes. It was getting longer, and some of the hairs were getting thicker.

Karen was paralyzed with that same sort of twisted interest one gets when watching a car accident in progress-that kind of interest that makes you feel guilty later because you realize you were enjoying the show.
Karen was watching the scene playing out in front of her with such intensity that she didn’t even hear the wet footsteps coming up behind her. The rain was beginning to let up.

In Mahogany’s mind, she screamed out. Everything was her fault. All of this was happening because she had been so bitter and hateful…and stupid. Had she really hated her own children so much that she would bring this malice into the world? Perhaps she was more like The Occupants than she was admitting.
The kitten’s hair had grown out about six inches and was sticking out like porcupine quills in all possible directions. The thickened hairs had begun to move and curl back up towards the animal’s body. Each was like a long, thin, mutant worm, and when it got its head back to the kitten’s body, it took a bite.
The kitten was whining and kicking…and bleeding. The swarm was laughing.

Karen’s mouth hung open as she watched. She was almost completely mesmerized. She had to muster a great deal of inner strength just to make her head move, but when she was able, she tore her golf ball sized eyes away from the struggling kitten and looked up at the face of the old woman.
Mahogany’s eyes were insanely vacant. Her mouth was wide open. Karen could see blackness deep into the woman’s throat, and that alone was disturbing, but there was something else. Something was moving inside the black hole in the middle of Mrs. Fletcher’s dark papery face. What was it? Karen couldn’t make it out at first, but then it hit like a sledgehammer. It was bees. The nice little old lady’s mouth was home to what looked like at least eight terribly angry bees.
Karen let out a tiny whimper and turned on her heals to run. She ran right into something that was cold and wet..and alive. It wrapped its bulky arms around her and pulled her to it while covering her mouth with its frozen dripping hand. Everything went black.
CHAPTER TWENTY
June 4
Karen woke up in her own bed, and for a second, she thought that last night’s adventure was one of her dreams. Then she saw Tyler Miller sitting in the chair by the bed. His large brown face looked tired, worried and angry all at the same time. It was kind of amazing.
“What are you doing here?” Her voice was weaker than she expected. “How did you get in?”
“I used your key. I brought you home from Mrs. Fletcher’s house after you passed out.”
Karen didn’t say anything, but it was obvious from her face that she remembered it all, and Ty wished again that he had been able to see what had upset her.
“What were you doing there, Karen?”
She sat up with a groan.
“I was out driving around to clear my head, and I thought I’d go for a little walk. Somehow, I ended up there…What were you doing up there?” Karen’s voice was stronger now.
“I was going to spy on her.” Ty said flatly.
“Spy on her? Why?”
“Something happened last night that got me thinking about our conversation from the night we had dinner. Sheriff Kemperson got a call from a guy who lives next door to the Chatworth’s over there on Maxwell. He said something strange was going on next door. He could hear noises. When we got there, Sheriff and I went up to the window and looked in. It was a mess. There was a man there I had never seen before sitting up against the wall across from the window. He was clutching a big salad serving fork and crying like a baby. All around him, on the furniture, on the walls and on the floor, were pieces of the Chatsworths: arms, legs and parts I couldn’t make out.”
Ty swallowed hard and closed his eyes with a shiver. Karen shivered too.
“After getting our bearings, we went inside. The man was babbling, and nothing he said made any sense at all, except what he said about the lady.”
“What did he say?” Karen’s head was throbbing.
“He kept saying, ‘The lady was here…poor old lady. She couldn’t stop it.’ He said it over and over, and as far as I know, he’s still saying it. Sheriff Kemperson didn’t pay any attention to the man’s ravings. He had his murderer. Case closed. No further investigation necessary, but I couldn’t let it go.”
“Who was the man?”
“He turned out to be an escapee from Deer Lodge, the prison over in Montana. Sheriff thought that was enough to prove him guilty, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the way he was holding that salad fork. The man wasn’t just crazy. He was terrified. He wasn’t holding that fork. He was wielding it, like a person wields a cross at a vampire. There wasn’t any blood on it.”
They were quiet for a minute and then Karen asked, “What did you see at Mrs. Fletcher’s house last night?”
“Not very much. You were blocking my view, but I saw enough from your reaction to know that something is going on, and something needs to be done about it. I think I have an idea about why you’ve been avoiding me and I think a pretty good idea about why you’re here. I know that I need you to tell me what you know about Mrs. Fletcher. You know way more than you’ve been letting on.
“Yes, I do.” Karen said firmly. There was no point in trying to deny what was now obvious. “I know what has to be done, and I can handle it. You have to let me.”

Ty’s face went a shade darker. The skin around his eyes and mouth drew in to a tight grimace as the frustration building up inside of him threatened to boil. His heart was pounding away like a rock and roll drummer in a crowded bar. And the worst part was that Karen didn’t even seem to notice he was there. She sat there calmly as if they were talking about who should be responsible for changing a flat tire or filling out joint tax returns.
“Let you? Who the hell are you?”
The haze over Karen’s eyes cleared up a little, and she really looked at Ty for the first time since she’d awaken.
“I can’t let you handle it, Karen!” He was obviously holding back a bellow. “It’s my job to handle it, mine and Sheriff Kemperson’s.”
“Are you crazy?” Now, it was Karen’s turn to hold back screaming. “If you’ve thought at all about what happened tonight…and last night, you know this is no police matter. Guess what, Deputy. If you go and tell the nice, down to Earth citizens of Learning your theories on lonely old women and unsolved murders, no one is going to believe you, and even if someone did, and I can’t stress enough that no one will, they wouldn’t know what to do. I do know so let me do it! If that woman even thinks for a second that you suspect her, you can kiss your ass good-bye, and everyone else you involve in this will be killed right along with you. There is nothing Deputy Miller can do here!”
“And what exactly do you think you’re going to do…paint her to death?”
Karen almost smiled. It was all pretty ridiculous when you stopped to think about it.
“I can’t do anything that will stop her in Learning, Ty, but that’s almost over now. What I can do is stop this from going beyond Learning. I can save the lives of the people in the next town and the town after that, but I won’t be able to do that if you let them know we’re on to them. They’ll kill all of us, Ty, and in ways you don’t even want to try and imagine. You just have to stay out of this, and you have to trust me.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Karen, and what’s with the They? You must realize that you sound like a raving lunatic. I can’t trust you when I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You have got to leave this alone, Ty. It’s almost over for Learning. I promise. Things will get back to normal here, but if you mess with this, it could come back to you some day. Just please, back off and pretend you didn’t see me at that house last night.”
Karen started to get up, and now, Ty did scream.
“I think that witch has been murdering people…good, innocent people, people I was hired to protect. I don’t intend to let one more person die. I will not just sit back and wait for you, some recluse artist from out of town, to handle this. For all I know, you could be working with her. Neither of you has told anything but lies from the first day you came here!”
“I haven’t lied to you. I never said I came here to paint. Everyone just assumed that I did. I told you I was on a schedule, and I am. The only lie I told was tonight when I said I was out for a walk. That was a lie, and I’m sorry for it. I just didn’t want you to get hurt, and the truth can hurt you this time.”
Ty took Karen’s hand and squeezed.
“I’m not sure what happened in that house last night, but I know it was dangerous. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever met, and something happened that made you turn on your heals to run. I know you might not need me, but I won’t let you face something like this by yourself while I sit back and pretend not to know. I care too much about this town… and about you.”
Karen took a breath, after a moment, she said, “I don’t know what to do. I can’t take the chance. I can’t let you endanger yourself because it would kill me if anything happened to you. I couldn’t forgive myself. Please, won’t you let me do this, and promise you won’t give me away.”
Ty took Karen’s other hand into his own. They were such small powerful hands. He pulled her to him and looked into her eyes, basked in them.
“You’re not going to be alone anymore, Karen.” He leaned forward and kissed her on the mouth.
Karen knew in that moment that Ty’s help would not change her into the weak, depressed woman she had been with Mark. She would not be that person ever again. She felt Ty’s strength making her stronger. Karen kissed Ty back, and the huge weight she’d been carrying her whole life was lightened by half.
It was well into the afternoon when Ty left Karen’s house. She told him everything, and together they made plans.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
June 20
Jerrico Kemperson, better known as Jerry, and, for the past twenty-five years, even better known as Sheriff, lived in the last small house on the western edge of Learning with his German shepherd, Willard. He had no steady girlfriend and had managed to stay single his entire sixty-eight years, but he had lots of friends in town, and he had the respect of everyone he knew within a three hundred mile radius of Pallor county. For Jerry, that respect (along with his dog, his TV, and an occasional slice of lemon meringue pie) was enough to keep him happy even in the face of hard times.
Jerry’s home was a rustic log cabin that sat back from the street half an acre. It was preceded by a long and narrow paved driveway and almost completely hidden by a small forest of tall evergreen trees and shrubs.
Jerry was the public’s man almost all of the time, but he liked his home life private. He knew he needed the time he spent alone with the dog to keep himself sane and focused. People seemed to be okay with that. Sheriff got invited to dinner often and accepted often, but people weren’t in the habit of dropping by to see him. That was a good thing because if anyone did just pop in for a visit, they’d be likely as not to find Jerry in his skivvies or buck naked. It was a fifty, fifty kinda deal.
Tonight was baseball night, and Jerry was sitting in his lemon yellow, corduroy Laz-E-Boy watching the game with Willard at his feet. It wasn’t going well. Jerry’s team of choice, the Seattle Mariners, was losing by a landslide to those pansies from over in New York. It was amazing that those players from the east coast could even breathe. Seemed like their lungs would be ruined by all that smog.
Jerry was so engrossed in the failings of the Mariners’ pitcher and was yelling so loudly at the TV that he didn’t even hear his back door when it opened, and he never noticed the old woman coming into the room with him. At that moment, Jerry wouldn’t have heard a stampeding heard of rhinos making a detour through his kitchen.
Right in the midst of a rather creative stream of profanities he was in the middle of yelling at the oblivious umpire, Jerry stopped and let go a huge, almost spiritual burp. It was amazingly loud, and it seemed to last forever. Jerry figured that was definitely one for the record books, and he wondered briefly if Guinness gave an acknowledgement for the longest belch. His lasted for a good twelve seconds.
When it was over, Jerry smacked his lips a couple of times and then looked down at his stomach.
“What the hell is this?” He asked Willard trying not to sound too panicky.

Mahogany had to watch as Jerry stood up with his hands on his stomach, spilling the bowl of twice buttered popcorn out of his lap and onto the matted green shag. His face had gone an almost identical shade of green.
Jerry felt like he was going to pass out for sure. His stomach was getting bigger, swelling like a beach ball! It looked like it was going to pop. He had absolutely no idea what was happening, and there was no point in pretending not to panic now. Willard had fled the room.
Jerry didn’t know he was still talking, but he was. He was saying, “Oh, my God! Oh, my Jesus! What is this? Oh please…What is this…” on and on and over and over. It was really quite humorous if you liked that sort of thing. The Occupants inside Mahogany Fisher liked that kind of thing a lot.
Mahogany could see the terror in the poor man’s face. She could see the knitting on his old yellow bowling shirt with the cranberry stain on the front pocket stretching until the threads started to give, and she could see the motion. Every organ in Jerry Kemperson’s abdomen, his spleen, his liver, his stomach, his appendix, all had swollen, and they were all floating around loose inside him. His heart had floated up to lodge itself in the narrow passage of his throat, and his eyes were bulging.

Mahogany wanted to reach out to the man and ease his pain. She wanted to make the spirits controlling her leave him alone, so once again, she cried out to them, “Please let just this one alone! Let him go back to his baseball game and think he was having a bad dream. Please don’t do this anymore. I’ll do anything.” It was all in vain. The thunderous laughter of the swarm hurt Mahogany’s head so badly that she wanted to retreat into herself as she usually did, but this time, she did not go. She decided that she should suffer right along with Sheriff Kemperson. After all, she was the cause of his pain, and he was not allowed a retreat, so she would not take one either. She stayed right where she was and continued to plead with the swarm for the sheriff’s life or at least a little less pain in his death.
A strange thing happened then. The Occupants stopped laughing. They were annoyed by the old woman’s whining and pleading and even more so, they were annoyed by her sacrifice. They absolutely hated that she would suffer for another person. It was so blatantly moral that it repulsed them.
To Mahogany, the swarm’s anger was even more painful than their laughter, but it was worth it. She felt as though she had gained some control over the force inside her. She had gone against them and changed their mood. It wasn’t much, but maybe it was a beginning. If she could change their moods, maybe someday she could change their minds. She had proven that she could affect them.

Jerry Kemperson experienced a rapid transformation from being bloated as far as his skin would allow back to his normal size in a matter of seconds. It was so sudden and disruptive that Jerry could no longer stand and fell hard to the ground in front of his Laz-E-Boy where only minutes before Willard had been lying peacefully enjoying the game. Blood gushed out of Jerry’s nose and mouth, and within seconds, he was dead.

Later that night, Deputy Tyler Miller got a phone call from Julia Webster, the local physician. Julia told Ty about Mildred Stokes who drove along the road that went by the sheriff’s place. She heard screams (they must have been some screams for Mildred to hear them all the way in her car, but no one wanted to think about that) and went up the private drive to investigate. Mildred found the sheriff of Pallor County sprawled out on his living room floor with popcorn all around him and his bewildered dog Willard standing over him and whining.
The doctor explained that the sheriff had suffered a ruptured appendix. He was dead. There was nothing anyone could have done or could do.

Karen was there when Ty got the bad news, and she did her best to comfort him.
“I know she did it,” Ty said through his tears. “I know she did.”
“Maybe,” Karen said, “but there was nothing you could have done.”
“I could have followed her. I could have been on her every minute of every day. I should have.”
“All you could hope to accomplish by doing that is watching your friend die, and maybe getting yourself killed in the bargain. We’ve talked about this. If we follow her around all the time, she’ll see us, and we won’t be able to do what needs to be done. Sooner or later, she’ll make reservations to go to Texas. Then we’ll follow her, and then we can make a difference.”
“I just feel like I should do something…for Sheriff. He was a good man. He deserves better than being murdered and having nobody do anything. I should have been there.”
“Ty, don’t make me sorry I told you about this. I can’t have you going off and trying to avenge your friend’s death. It won’t work. You’ll get us killed. Do you understand that?”
“I understand it, but I don’t know if I can live with it.”
“You have no choice.”
“I know.”
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO
August 1
Mahogany was sitting in her rocking chair watching television when she became aware of a soft voice coming from some place inside her mind. It was not one of the swarm. She was sure of that. She was also sure that the occupants didn’t hear the voice. They knew she was listening to something, and they were trying to hear it but they couldn’t. This angered them a great deal.
To Mahogany, the voice was immediately familiar and soothing. It was a man. He was calling Mahogany to come to him. It was Walter. It was Mahogany’s one and only love, her husband Walter.
Mahogany closed her eyes and searched for Walter in her mind. She remembered how he looked in his coffin all made up and dressed for a party. She concentrated on his voice and went deeper and deeper into herself. She actually saw her mind as a grand hotel with hundreds of rooms. She walked down long corridors opening doors and listening. Most of the rooms were empty. Some of them were re-creations of scenes from her childhood. Polly was sitting on her childhood bed behind one of the doors. Behind another door, Mahogany’s mother and father were sitting at the breakfast table sharing the newspaper.
Mahogany found Walter in a room at the end of a long dimly lit hallway behind a door that was midnight blue. It was cool to the touch and smooth like marble. Mahogany knew right away that this was the right door. She could hear her husband’s voice so clearly from here. She couldn’t find a knob or a handle so Mahogany pushed on one side of the door. It swung it open.
Mahogany was surprised to see Walter looking so substantial. He didn’t look at all as he had on the day he died. He looked young, about thirty-five and so healthy. Mahogany took only an instant to worry about her own haggard appearance. She was too overwhelmed by the man before her. There was no room for anything else in her head.
“Oh Walter, I’m so glad to see you!” She ran up to where he was standing in the center of the poorly lit room and wrapped her arms around him. She thought she might actually die from the disappointment. She couldn’t feel him.
“This is a trick. Isn’t it? Haven’t you punished me enough? I can’t take anymore.” Mahogany’s voice was strange in this place. It sounded hollow.
“It’s not a trick, Mahogany. I’m not here to make you feel better. I’m here to help someone else.”
Mahogany felt a spark of anger and took a breath to say something selfish and demanding that would start the thing blazing. The look on Walter’s face stopped her.
“Who?” Mahogany said finally. This probably was a trick or some cruel dream. Maybe, she had lost her mind all together. No one could blame her.
“There are some young people who are going to try and stop the swarm. Unless you help them, they will fail.”
“But they know everything I know. Maybe, you shouldn’t be telling me this.”

“We are in a special place, Mahogany. I was sent here to help you find it. Your thoughts are safe here. You can’t hide from the thoughts of the swarm. Their thoughts will still be with you, but you can trick them into thinking you’re one of them.”
“How is that possible?”
“The Occupants will think you are still in your usual place. They will still feel your disgust and shame. They won’t miss you. If you speak loudly to them from here, they will hear your words and think it’s one of them speaking. Not even they know the size of their swarm.
Walter paused giving Mahogany a moment to process. Then he continued.
“You must be very careful and keep your words to a minimum or they will come to suspect you.”
“What could I possibly have to say to them that they wouldn’t suspect?”
“Whatever it takes to protect those kids and let them do what they have to do.”
“Who are they, Walter?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you stay with me until it’s over? I don’t think I can do this by myself.”
“I can’t stay, but maybe when this is over I can be with you again.”
Walter disappeared before his voice was gone.
Mahogany hoped that when she saw her husband again she would be able to touch him.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
August 20,
Karen and Ty hadn’t spoken since their plane took off from Seattle twenty minutes earlier. Everything was starting to happen, and there wasn’t much that could be said. They would be in San Antonio by morning.
Mrs. Fletcher took the bus out of Learning and a connecting flight from Spokane that day to catch the same flight to Texas from Seattle with a stop in The Twin Cities. Karen and Ty didn’t want to press their luck by taking the bus with the old woman so they made other arrangements. Unfortunately, Learning lacked both a real airport and a car rental agency, so they drove Karen’s car to Spokane and then the rental to Seattle.
Ty used his official persona and his winning personality to grease the wheels of their search for information about Mahogany’s travel plans. He and Karen started by looking at the most obvious routes. After all, the woman didn’t know she was being watched, so she had no reason to be sneaky.
It was last month’s trip to the Northwest counter at the Spokane airport that paid off. A large, pretty woman named Regina told Ty (with shockingly little prompting) the date and time of Mahogany Fletcher’s flight to Texas.

There were twelve deputies in Pallor County. Ty had seniority over all but one. Elizabeth Ryan didn’t live in Learning (none of the other deputies did), but she had moved into town temporarily to be closer to the Sheriff’s office. She was acting Sheriff until the next election which would be held in November of that year.
Ty used to think that if Kemperson retired, he would run for Sheriff himself. It was part of his plan to spend his whole life in Learning. Now though, none of that seemed important.
Since Sheriff Kemperson’s death, Ty was completely devoted to making sure that when Mahogany Fisher/Fletcher made her move, he and Karen would be there to see it. Ty cashed in on some of his saved vacation days and sacrificed his savings to help cover the expense of being a full time spy.
Ty felt a little guilty leaving Elizabeth to run the office alone at a time like this, but he didn’t doubt that she could handle the job. Ty’s previous experiences with Elizabeth were testament to her abilities. Besides, being Sheriff of Pallor County wasn’t supposed to be a difficult job-more paperwork than anything. Even with all the strange deaths, there wasn’t much the Sheriff could really do.

Even with his life savings, Ty didn’t have the kind of money you needed to get on a plane with short notice. Karen did. Karen had lots of money. It was from her father. There was money in savings and from life insurance on both of her parents. Karen could have been living like a princess, but she hadn’t wanted to use any of it.
Using it made her feel tainted by what her father had become. She felt (even before she knew the truth) that her father had sold his soul for money and security. Karen didn’t want to have any part of the money that made her father someone she couldn’t love. Now, Karen would use the money to save him.
There were going to be a lot of expenses. Karen was afraid that if she and Ty used personal vehicles to get around in Texas, the old woman would eventually recognize them. They would rent a different car for every trip.

With Karen’s money, she and Ty could afford to fly first class on any flight, but Mrs. Fletcher was flying first class today. It would be risky to sit anywhere that she could get a good, long look at them. They were in coach.
The plan was to avoid Mrs. Fletcher during the flight and the lay-over in Minneapolis. Once they landed in San Antonio, they would follow her. Karen knew that the occupying spirits were planning to take on their new body in under two months. Mrs. Fletcher didn’t have a lot of time to make arrangements. She had to get the new victim set up in a house with some sort of believable story. There was no way she could do that without at some point saying the name of the person she was planning for. When they had the name, Karen and Ty would go home to regroup and then head to Coeur d’Alene and get to work.

Mahogany was glad to be going to Texas. Going there meant the nightmare was coming to its end. She had only two months more of torture. This was the second and final trip the swarm had made to Texas this year. The first was in January right after becoming aware of the identity of the man they were going to possess. It was more of a scouting trip than anything else. The Occupants wanted to get the lay of the land. They wanted the perfect neighborhood, a place where the new host could blend in and not be recognized or questioned.
Since then, there had been telephone and mail correspondence with the Realtor and the bank. All the ground work was done. Now, they were going to solidify the details and sign the papers. Everything would be perfect.
Mahogany traveled now comforted by the knowledge that she would not be involved in killing anyone there. This trip was strictly business. Yet, as much as she appreciated the respite from torture and murder, Mahogany’s spirit was lifted even more by the fact that someone else out there knew about her situation. Someone might be able to stop all of this once and for all. Mahogany intended to help that someone if she could.

In Minneapolis, Karen and Ty sat on the plane until everyone else had gone. They wanted to make sure the old woman left the plane before they went out. If she saw them, the demons would know something was up, and it could all be over very quickly. The connecting flight was leaving from the same gate in less than an hour. Ty and Karen hoped to make it into one of the airport bars without being seen and hide out until it was time to re-board.
When they stepped off of the Jetway and into the airport, Ty and Karen saw the old woman at the same time. She was sitting in one of the dark blue, plastic airport chairs that were built into the floor in rows of six. Mahogany was staring straight ahead, and straight ahead meant straight at Ty and Karen. Ty thought surely the woman would recognize him (after all, he had made a point of going by her place a number of times over the years to make sure she was okay in that big house all alone), but she didn’t seem to notice him at all. She stared right at him, and her face didn’t change.
Karen grabbed Ty’s hand, and they walked quickly out of the room. They went to the nearest lounge and got a table. The old woman sat there staring into space.

Mahogany was in the special place in her mind when she saw the deputy from Learning and the woman who was with him. She didn’t recognize the woman, but the swarm did. At first they did anyway. Ty’s companion was the daughter of Karl Penwalski, the man who gave over his body to The Occupants in the decade just before Mahogany. They didn’t know what exactly to make of the deputy and that woman being together, but they didn’t like it. The Occupants clamored in agitated voices.
“It’s the Deputy!”
“He shouldn’t be here!”
“We know that woman!”
“We have to fix this!”
“Something has to be done about this!”
Mahogany saw her chance.
“It’s a coincidence! They’re not who we think they are.” She screamed from her room. “If we look closely, we’ll see that we don’t know those people at all. We don’t have time for this distraction. We should sit here and stick to the plan. There is nothing to worry about!”
Soon, Mahogany heard her words echoing throughout her body. The Occupants repeated her message and passed it on. Mahogany felt a physical shift. It was like a dimming of the lights and a cooling down. They believed her. She had done something good for the first time in years. Mahogany had helped. She was not made to get up to investigate. The spirits using her body remained there, buzzing around and thinking about the future. What fun they were going to have.

In the airport lounge, Karen and Ty debated their next moves over stiff drinks. Their encounter with Mahogany was disturbing and left them with a significant lack of confidence.
“She knows who we are,” Karen said putting her double rum and coke back down after taking a long drink. “The swarm will want us dead.”
“But did you see the way she looked at me?” Ty was drinking what was left of the Seven-up chaser from his second tequila shot.
“It sent chills through me.” Karen said. “I have never seen a face that blank. It was like she was looking right through you.”
“Maybe I should have said something. I’ve talked to her hundreds of times, and she has never hurt me. I could have told her I was going to visit relatives or something.”
“And you just happened to be on the same flight with her? I doubt she’d have bought that. Besides, how would you have explained me?”
“I could have told her anything. She’s never met you.”
“Ah, but the others have. They knew my father. Remember?”
“Well, what do we do now? Do you think we should go back home?”
Karen thought for a minute and took another long drink.
“I don’t want to,” she said. “If we go back home, she’ll know where to find us, and sooner or later, she will. We may as well do what we came to do. I don’t think she’ll do anything on the plane.”
“I wish I could know what was going through her head. Maybe, she was so wrapped up in everything else that she didn’t notice us.”
“I think you’re being an optimist, but I hope you’re right.”
“Flight six sixty-five to San Antonio, now boarding at gate fifteen…” The loud speaker was repeating the message.
“I guess that’s us.” Ty took Karen’s hand and squeezed it.
Karen and Ty stood up together and began walking toward the gate. Halfway there, Karen stopped.
“Thank you for being here, Ty.” She looked up at him. “I was so sure I had to do this alone, and now I’m almost certain I couldn’t have gotten even this far without you.”
“I need to be here,” Ty said.
“Final call for flight six sixty-five to San Antonio, gate fifteen…now boarding.”
“Well, here we go.” Karen said. She took Ty’s hand and they made their way to the gate.

Mahogany was one of the first passengers on the plane. She had a seat by the window, and she made sure to turn her face to it so as not to see the other passengers as they boarded. She didn’t want to risk seeing the two young people again. They were obviously following her, and if she saw them again, it would be impossible to talk the occupants out of believing the obvious.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
August 21
It was eight in the morning when the plane landed in San Antonio. Mahogany got off the plane and left the airport looking straight ahead the whole time. She took a taxi from the airport to the Century Twenty One office which was located near the center of town. The agent was expecting her. Mahogany was the sweet elderly woman who was buying a house for her favorite nephew. He was to move in this November. It was a surprise.

Karen arranged to have a rental car waiting for her and Ty at the airport. She wanted something that wouldn’t stick out in traffic and wouldn’t break down, and what she got was a two year old Thunderbird in the most non-committal brown she’d ever seen. She signed the necessary paperwork and made it to the front of the airport just in time to see Mahogany getting into her cab.
“There she is!” Ty said pointing to his left. Karen turned her head and saw the old woman hunching herself into the back seat. Karen made to turn onto the street that ran in front of the airport and catch up with Mahogany. Ty put his hand on her shoulder.
“Let’s give her a little extra lead so she doesn’t notice us right away.”
“Good idea.” Karen put her foot back on the break and waited. The man in the green Kia behind them honked his horn in disgust.
“What do you think?” Karen asked.
“I think that’s enough lead.” Ty replied. “Go for it.”

Just as Karen began to pull forward, a large crowd of people came out of the airport and poured onto the crosswalk in her path. She was forced to wait as the newly reacquainted families and friends helped loved ones heave their luggage to the parking garage. It was a good minute and half before Karen was able to move forward. She watched Mahogany’s taxi pull away and take a right turn onto what looked like a main road. When the parade of people cleared, Karen took off in the direction of the cab. There was a lot of traffic and several cabs were heading toward the city center. Karen followed the one she thought was right. She couldn’t say why she thought it was the right one, but Ty didn’t have any bright ideas either.
Karen followed her target cab for about ten miles, all the while trying not to look like she was following it. She kept a few cars in between her and the cab for as long as she could, but at Vance Jackson Road, all of the cars between her and the target cab turned the wrong way. Karen thought it would look even more suspicious if she hung too far behind, so she drove normally and hoped that the woman didn’t look into the rearview mirror or turn around. When they came to a stop light, Karen and Ty were finally close enough to see into the cab.
They realized at almost the same moment that the passenger in the cab they’d been following wasn’t Mrs. Fletcher at all. It was a man, or a woman with light skin and very short black hair. Karen took the next right turn and parked on a side street. Her heart was pounding.
“What do we do now?” she asked. “I’ve blown it. I don’t know how we’re going to find her in a city we don’t know.”
“We have to find her.” Ty rubbed at his temples.
“Okay, let’s look at it logically,” Karen said after taking a few deep, slow breaths. “She’s here to get things ready for someone.”
“What types of things would she be doing?” Ty said picking up Karen’s line of logic.
“When we moved to Boston, Dad said his company had already found us a house that we were sure to love. Only now I know that there was no company.”
“Maybe, Mrs. Fletcher is buying a house,” Ty said, “a base of operations for her replacement.”
“Let’s go look in the phone book and check out some of the Realtors. If that doesn’t help, we’ll start calling anyone else we can think of.”
Karen started the car again and sat for another minute just to let a little more of the tension roll off. It was hard enough driving in a strange city under normal circumstances, but this was worse. Realizing, she still didn’t know where to go, she turned the engine off again.
“Are you okay?” Ty reached over and touched her leg.
“I’m fine now. Are you alright?”
“I think so. I mean, we are both crazy. Right?”
“Absolutely insane.”

Ty and Karen used their cell phones to search for local Real Estate agencies and started calling the larger offices one at a time. The routine was for one of them to ask the persons on the other end of the phone if any of their agents had appointments scheduled with a Mrs. Fletcher for this morning or afternoon. Then they listened to Musac or advertisements while the question was put to the office.
On her fifth call, which was to a Century Twenty-one office run by a woman named Carolyn Price, Karen got a positive response. Mrs. Fletcher was just now arriving for her nine o’clock meeting with Ms. Price. Ms. Price offered to let Karen speak with Mrs. Fletcher, but Karen said that wouldn’t be necessary and hung up without explanation.

The Real Estate office of Carolyn Price was located on Locust Street-which Ty learned (from the nervous young man at the McDonald’s counter) was quite a ways away. It would take them at least twenty minutes to get there.
There was no real point in rushing to catch up with the old woman. Neither Karen nor Ty wanted to arrive at the office while Mrs. Fletcher was still there. One encounter was enough. Karen prayed that no one had mentioned to the woman that someone had called looking for her.
It was close to eleven o’clock when Karen pulled into the parking lot. There was only one other car in the lot, a grey Pontiac Grand Am. It looked brand new. Karen pulled into the spot next to it.
The office itself was quite a bit smaller than the ad made it seem. It was located in a small, brick Victorian style house with a balcony and a big front porch. Except for the paved parking lot and the big Century Twenty-One sign, it could have been the home of a young couple just starting out, or an elderly widower at the quiet time of his life.
Just as Karen turned the Thunderbird’s engine off, Ms. Price came out of the building. She was a tall woman, very smartly dressed in a navy suit with just the right amount of jewelry. Her dark brown hair was done in one of those mid length TV anchorwoman styles. She had a brief case in one hand and a big grey purse that matched her pumps in the other. She looked a little weighted down as she fumbled for her keys.
“Ms. Price?” Ty called as he and Karen both got out of the car.
“Yes?” She looked surprised and just a bit threatened. She had her keys out now and was sort of brandishing them.
“My name is Tyler Miller, and this is Karen Noland. We’re here from Learning Idaho. I’m deputy Sheriff there.” He took out his wallet and flipped it open so she could see his badge. “If you have a minute, we’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“I’m actually quite busy this morning. I have a client waiting for me right now.”
“This is extremely important,” Karen said, taking a step closer. “Someone’s life could depend on it.”
“What’s this about?”
“It’s about Mrs. Fletcher, the woman who was just here,” Ty said.
“Yes, you just missed her. What’s the problem?”
“Well, she’s been involved in something in Learning, and I need to know who she is buying a home for.”
“What has she been involved in?”
“I can’t really go into that now, but it shouldn’t affect you. I just need to know who the house is for.”
“I don’t think I should tell you that.” Carolyn Price was still brandishing her car keys.
“Mrs. Fletcher is not what she seems to be. Didn’t she seem strange to you? And didn’t it seem strange that a woman her age should be flying around buying houses for people?”
“She seemed in good health, and she said it was to be a surprise.”
“Ms. Price, I know you don’t know us, but there isn’t time. We absolutely have to find the person this house is for before it’s too late,” Karen pleaded. “I know this is unusual, but there is no other way.”
“Why would you care if she bought her nephew a house? Seems like he would be grateful. It’s a great house! And Mrs. Fletcher paid cash for it. No strings attached.”
“But there are strings…terrible strings.”
Ty put a hand on Karen’s shoulder, and Karen stopped. She was sounding like something out of a horror movie, and it wasn’t helping.
“If what you say is true,” Ty said to agent not looking at Karen but continuing to rest his hand on her shoulder, “no harm can come from you telling us who she’s buying the house for. It’s really very important.”

Carolyn Price was baffled and almost annoyed. She really was in a hurry. She wasn’t meeting a client. She had a date (a first date) with a man she’d been courting on line for over six months. She didn’t want to make her first impression by being late, but there was something about the two people standing in front of her that made her want to trust them. She read sincerity and desperation in their faces.
Karen could see the turmoil working its way over the woman’s features.
“No one will know that you told us, but please, look into your heart. We’re not crazy people. You must have suspected that something wasn’t right with her.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I did. She gave me the creeps, but I don’t have to deal with her anymore. She bought the house, and now she’s going home.”
“Please tell us the name,” Ty pleaded.
“Richard Ivanhoe. Now, please leave me alone.”
Carolyn got into her car before anything else could be said. Karen and Ty got in the Thunderbird and headed back to the airport.

“I guess we can make the flight out tonight,” Karen said as she turned a corner onto a one-way street. “Things seem to be going our way.”
Because she hadn’t known how long it would take to get the name they needed, Karen had made arrangements for two different return flights.
“They seem to be?” Ty didn’t seem at all certain.
“Ty?” Karen snatched a brief glance at his face.
“Yes.”
Karen took a deep breath and said, “If she did see us, she will probably find us and kill us maybe even as soon as we get back to Learning. I know she can do that. I’ll never be able to forgive myself for letting you get involved if she hurts you.”
“There was nothing you could have done to stop me from getting involved. It’s not like you invited me. Whatever Mahogany Fletcher is now…she is responsible for killing Sheriff Kemperson, and that man was one of my best friends.” Ty paused. “Don’t blame yourself Karen. Anyway, there’s no point in worrying about whether or not she saw us. There’s nothing we can do about that, but…” He hesitated.
“What?” Karen prompted with a slight tremble in her voice.
“I think we should stay in town here…overnight.”
“Why should we stay?” Karen asked. “The old woman is leaving tonight, and we have what we came for.”
“I think we deserve a night off. I think we should get a motel and forget about all of this insanity for a few hours. Richard Ivanhoe will be there tomorrow.”
Karen thought about it. “I think you’re right,” She said.

There was a decent looking motel just down the road from the airport. Karen and Ty walked in holding hands. Karen wasn’t sure when it had started but she and Ty had been holding hands a lot since the encounter with the old woman at the airport.
Karen asked the man behind the counter (his name tag read “Michael”) if there were any rooms available for tonight.
“We have several.” Michael was an older gentleman with an old man’s rasp to his voice. He was looking at a computer screen. “Oh this is a nice one, just redecorated. It has two queen sized beds, but most people like the extra room.”
“That will be fine,” Karen said smiling at the way Michael had assumed that she and Ty only wanted one room. She had worried without warrant about the possibility of an awkward moment.
The truth was that to Michael, Ty and Karen looked as if they had been married for years. It didn’t even occur to him to offer them separate rooms.
The registration process was completed and supplies were transferred from the rental car to the motel room. The accommodations were in fact very nice (all done up in mauve and greys with subtle floral patterns in the wall paper and curtains), but Karen didn’t take long to admire it. She was now awash in that feeling of awkwardness she had worried about before. In order to postpone what could potentially be the best move or biggest mistake of her life, she made a beeline to the bathroom. To her surprise, Ty turned on the television.
When Karen came out of the bathroom, she and Ty watched the music channel for a while and talked about anything and everything except spirits and danger and the fact that they were sitting on a bed in a motel room. When Ty started surfing the channels, Karen’s feeling of awkwardness grew.
They watched a whole episode of Bewitched in complete silence. It was the one where Samantha Stevens had a disease that makes her ravenous. She has to resort to calling in the crazy family doctor. Karen stole glances at Ty. He seemed enthralled. Ty stole glances at Karen. She seemed enthralled.
Best episode ever!
During the ending credits, Karen took a deep breath and let out a sigh that was much louder than she thought it would be.
“What?” Ty asked.
“I’m a little nervous,” Karen said. The tremble in her voice was different than before.
“About what?” Ty really didn’t know.
Karen took another deep breath and did her best to look Ty in the eyes. “I’ve only ever made love to my husband…well, my ex-husband,” she said. “I’m not really sure how to…” She trailed off.
Ty’s face darkened about two shades and went as red as a man that dark can go. He noticed that his left hand had been resting near-almost touching-Karen’s. He pulled it away as if he’d been caught at something.
“Oh my God, Karen!” Ty said in a rush of air as he stood up. “I’m such jerk! I wasn’t even thinking. I didn’t mean to make you feel…I’m so sorry! All I wanted was to be in the same space with you. I just thought…well…I didn’t want to be alone. I wasn’t expecting anything to happen. Really…I promise. I’m so sorry! I’ll get another room.”
Suddenly Karen didn’t feel awkward or nervous anymore. This was a good person she had lucked onto. Ty didn’t have a plan or an agenda. He wasn’t going to control her or shame her. She laughed with relief.
“You mean you don’t want to make love to me?”
“I…I…of course I do…more than anything. I just didn’t think you wanted to, and I really do understand that.”
“I want to make love to you, Ty. I’ve just been so afraid.”
Ty sat back down and took Karen’s hand.
“Karen, you scare the hell out of me, but what are you afraid of?”
“I’m afraid of how I feel for you. I’m afraid I won’t be able to do what I need to. I’m afraid I won’t want to risk not being able to make love to you again. All of this craziness I’ve brought to your life…If I fail, I’ll have to live with the guilt forever. I will have to own the suffering of everybody…my father, and all the people who die next year because I couldn’t stop them… I…”
Ty leaned over and kissed Karen mid babble. It was long and soft like that first kiss, but better because it wasn’t going to end in good-bye.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE
August 23
Karen and Ty were nervous about getting back to Learning after all that had happened in Texas. They were afraid that when they got home, they’d find an angry little old woman waiting for them, so when the plane landed in Spokane, Karen rented another car. They drove to Coeur d’Alene right away. The plan was to search the local listings, find Richard Ivanhoe’s house, lay the unhappy news on him and maybe be home in time for a late supper. Neither Ty nor Karen actually believed it would be that simple, but that was the plan.
Ty looked up Richard Ivanhoe in the Coeur d’Alene phone directory. There was no listing. Ty could find no such man anywhere in Coeur d’Alene. If Richard Ivanhoe lived in Coeur d’Alene, he didn’t want unsolicited phone calls.
Karen thought that maybe The Occupants had created the name “Robert Ivanhoe” for their next host just as they had created the false name M. Fletcher for Mahogany Fisher. It made a lot of sense really. Mahogany Fisher was supposed to be dead. It wouldn’t be very smart to have another woman with the same name and the right age who looked exactly the same all of a sudden showing up in Learning Idaho in a great big mansion. The I.R.S. would have a fit.
If the next host was supposed to die in Coeur d’Alene, perhaps it would be necessary to give him a new name as well.
If the name “Richard Ivanhoe” was an alias, the only hope Karen and Ty had of finding the right person to warn was that The Occupants had used the first and last initials of the victim’s real name for his alias. It was what they had done with Mahogany Fisher. Hopefully, it was a pattern.
It was possible of course that there was no pattern and the man they were looking for could be any one of thousands of men in the city. But there was some good news. At least now, Karen and Ty knew that the person they were looking for was definitely a man. They could eliminate half of the residents of Coeur d’Alene that way.

The next step was go through the listings and look up every man with the initials I.R. That research could be done just as easily back in Learning.
The “how to” of the research turned out to be a lot more low-tech and time consuming than either of the two was hoping it would be.
Ty sat in front of his laptop with his hands resting lightly on the keys. He stared blankly at the screen. The cursor blinked, ready to accept his instructions. “Tell me what to do,” the search engine beckoned. “What exactly am I looking for?”
“I guess I’m not sure what to do here,” Ty said sheepishly. “I mean, we don’t really have anything to go on, no address, no date of birth…”
“Wow, good point,” Karen said. She was standing behind Ty at his computer desk. “Just tell it what you want it to do. Uh…start with ‘find’”
Ty tried several phrasings the gist of each being, “Find men who live in Coeur d’Alene whose last name starts with ‘I’ and whose first name starts with ‘R.’” He got nothing useful.

“I think we have to do this the hard way,” Ty said after several minutes of frustrated browsing.
“What’s the hard way? Door to Door?” Karen asked.
“Well, let’s try the library first. It’s a long shot, but doesn’t it feel like we’ve been having pretty good luck so far?”
“Amazing luck really,” Karen said. She was glad not to be the only one thinking along these lines. I didn’t want to say anything and scare you off. But I have felt since we went to Texas, that we are getting some help. Crazy, right?” She waited for Ty to say something rational.
“Then, let’s do the best we can. Maybe that’s all we have to do.”
The Learning library was being run temporarily by one of the elderly volunteers from the hospital, Greg Fuller. Greg was holding down the fort until a new librarian could be hired. The man who had been librarian for the past sixteen years had disappeared without a trace about four months earlier.
Greg didn’t really have a clue about how to run a library, but he was able to point Ty and Karen to the reference section where the regional phone books were shelved in semi-alphabetical order.
Karen found the most recent phone book for Coeur d’Alene and took it to conference sized table where Ty had taken out his laptop and opened a blank spreadsheet.

She flipped through the pages of the thick book finding the page with last names beginning with the letter I. Karen ran her right hand slowly over the names while holding the spine of the phonebook open with her left hand. There were two full pages of “I” names. She estimated between seventy and eighty in all. The list started at Ibach and ended with Izumi. Karen sighed.
“Okay,” she said wearily. “I’ll read out loud only the names of actual people- no businesses- with the last initial I and the first initial R. I will skip all of the really girly names.”
Ty nodded his approval and put his hands back into position on the keys. One at a time Karen read each listing in a deliberate but soft voice. She needn’t have worried. It was the middle of the day, yet the library (like so many once popular gathering places in Learning) was completely empty except for the two secret agents trying to undermine the old woman and her spirits.
There were twenty-one “I-R” names, and six of those were clearly feminine-Roses, Rebeccas, Ruths and Rhondas. That left fifteen candidates.\: Richard Ichibi, Ray Icovina, R. Ideus Ralph Ilium, Robert Ireland, Raymond Irmer, Ronald Irving, R. Irwin, Richard Isaac, Reginald Isaac, Robert Isaacson, Ralph Isker, Rick Isler, R. Ivers, and Rabi Izumi.
As Karen read the information, Ty entered it onto the spreadsheet whose columns were titled: Last Name, First Name, Phone number, Address, Yes or No. When it was done, Ty said, “Wow!”

“I know.” Karen said with exasperation. “I guess there’s no point in waiting. We should get the message to these men now…just in case something happens to us before we get another chance.”
“Very positive outlook you’ve got there, Karen. You don’t know how much better I feel when you talk that way.” Ty chuckled nervously.
“Well…” Karen took his hand across the table.
“Are you planning to cold call fifteen strangers and tell them that there’s a possibility they will be possessed by an insane hoard of spirits sometime next month?” Ty asked as he squeezed Karen’s hand. “Don’t you think that’s going to sound a little bit…um, how do I say this…completely nuts?”
“This is no time to worry about how we sound on the telephone. People’s lives are at stake here. This really may be our only chance.”
“You’re right of course. I just have a hard time believing some of this myself. I can’t imagine someone else believing me over the phone. However, I can imagine myself being fired after all of this. I can definitely believe in that.”
“Well then, I guess I better be the one to make the calls. I have less to lose.”

They packed up and left the library, and went back to Karen’s place. Karen used her cell phone to call each of the fifteen Coeur d’Alene phone numbers one by one. She did her very best impersonation of a sane person delivering insane news. Amazingly all except five of the recipients listened to her whole spiel, right down to the part where she told them about her father coming back from the dead covered in cockroaches to tell her what to do.
Three of the names turned out to be women after all, and hearing the female voices respond to her official sounding query was a relief. Karen could end the call right there with a careful “I’m sorry. I was looking for a gentleman who shares your name.” Those names got crossed off the list without further embarrassment.
One of the men, Raymond Irmer had passed away last year. That phone call required a quick and uncomfortable exit. Karen’s blurted, “I’m sorry! Please forgive me,” didn’t seem to cut it. She hung up with the woman at the other end of the line still sounding distressed and angry at what was obviously an insensitive prank call.
Ralph Ilium couldn’t be reached. The line had been disconnected. Ty googled the name and found that Ralph had relocated to New York and started a humorous greeting card business earlier in the year.
It was truly amazing and almost unbelievable that each of the ten men that Karen was able speak with listened to her with very few interruptions. Sure there were some impertinent questions like “What are you trying to sell me?” and “What are you smoking?” some laughter and some well-placed usage of profanity that decorated the conversations, but over-all, Karen thought things had gone as well as could be expected. She wasn’t left feeling hopeful, but at least, she had planted seeds.
“Well, that’s all of them,” she said to Ty after the last call. “Not one of them believed me, but maybe when something really happens, the right one will remember my call…If one of them is the right one. I wish I could be sure.”
“I don’t know what else we can do for now,” Ty said.
“I’m not even sure if the initials are right,” Karen lamented. “Maybe our guy doesn’t even have a land line. This is all just guessing.”
“We don’t have anything else to go on. Do we?” Ty said this last part with a meaningful look into Karen’s eyes. He wanted to make sure she wasn’t holding back any of the crazy clues Ghost Dad had left her.
“I think we should go back to Coeur d’Alene and hang out, you know, drive around for a while. Maybe we’ll get some ideas. Maybe we should see what’s going on there.”
“Whatever you think, Karen. When would you want to go?”
“How about this weekend?”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX
September 30
Sherriff’s Deputy Tyler Miller was at the police station covering the noon to midnight shift. He had recently returned from a spontaneous vacation that he didn’t want to talk about with any of the other department staff. People had finally stopped asking him about it. After all, it was his business and he had plenty of vacation days to work with.
On the one hand, Ty was glad that his coworkers were not badgering him for details about his time off. No one even joked with him about his budding relationship with the New York City artist. On the other hand the acceptance of his standoffishness was just one more sign of how much Learning had changed in the last ten years.
There was a time when it felt like everyone knew everything about everybody. It was expected and accepted that if you picked a potato in Learning the details would be all over town before you could boil water for soup. Now, people minded their business.
There was good news for Learning though. The new acting Sheriff had settled in nicely and things at the station were back to normal (as close to normal as they could be without Sheriff Kemperson). Elizabeth had things running more smoothly than anyone ever thought possible after all of the upsets in Learning. She had a way of putting people at ease. Her straight forward manner and no-drama attitude were exactly what the town needed right now.
Ty had worked with Elizabeth Ryan quite a bit over the last several days. She was keeping herself busy with paper work and getting to know people. Ty was surprised to see how the community welcomed her. She didn’t get any of the suspicious glances and whispers that accompanied Karen’s arrival. Sheriff Ryan was greeted with baked goods, invitations to dinner and “let us know if you need anything.” It was astonishing but a welcome breath of fresh air for Ty. Seeing the way the town treated the new Sheriff gave Ty hope that things really could return to normal once the old lady was gone. Sheriff Ryan represented safety, calm and stability, exactly what the people needed.
Ty still missed Sheriff Kemperson a great deal. It was hard to believe he was really gone. Yes, he missed Jerry Kemperson his boss, mentor and friend, but there was a part of Ty that worried he wasn’t missing him as much as he should be. Ty felt lately that a heavy fog had fallen over his emotions. His life and his belief system had been turned completely upside down recently, and now here he was, back at work thinking about what a great job the new Sheriff was doing. Ty wasn’t sure what to make of his tepid emotional state but maybe it was a blessing. Maybe his mind was preparing him to deal with what was coming next.

Things were weird between Ty and Karen since the return from Texas. They had shared a beautiful night and Karen was like no other woman Ty had ever been with. Being in love with this amazing woman was completely mind boggling. Sometimes, Ty still lost his breath when he thought about being with Karen.
Ty believed the night had been as special for Karen as it was for him. They were in sync, and afterwards, they did all the romantic things. They cuddled, stared into each other’s eyes, laughed and fell asleep holding each other.
The next morning, Ty woke up to find Karen already dressed and packed. She was a million miles away, and the kiss she gave him was dispassionate. Karen acted as though she had forgotten (or wanted to forget) what they had shared. At first Ty felt rejected but he understood what Karen was going through.
They didn’t talk about that night again. Since returning to Learning, things seemed to be getting worse between them. Ty and Karen never talked about being in love or making love. All they talked about was Mahogany Fisher and Richard Ivanhoe.
They went to Coeur d’Alene and spent about three hours blindly driving around hoping for ideas to spark. Not surprisingly nothing came of that. Now, Karen was in such a panic to get back there and find the man she was looking for, that when Ty couldn’t make it because of work, Karen wanted to go by herself. She even talked about moving to Coeur d’Alene. She believed she’d get vibes or psychic twinges. It took quite a bit of discussion and rationalizing to get Karen to agree to wait until Ty could join her.

Ty was worried about Karen. If she insisted on simply walking up to people’s doors uninvited and launching into her diatribe about the swarm, she was likely to end up in jail awaiting her psych evaluation. Karen seemed to be losing sight of reality more and more. She was on a crusade and nothing else mattered. To Ty, there were other important things.
No one had died in Learning since the Sheriff’s appendix burst over three months ago. Things were slowly returning to the way they had been before Mrs. Fletcher came to Learning. People were still looking over their shoulders and locking their doors, but they were visiting on the streets and there were more smiles. The trees were brilliant with color and the air smelled sweet like autumn. Ty wondered. Maybe it was all over. Maybe, Karen’s ghost had been wrong. Maybe, The Occupants were dead.
Ty was alone in the station tonight. There were no prisoners (which was pretty typical), and the phone hadn’t rung all night. It was almost time to go. He would take his pager home with him and hope to sleep uninterrupted. Maybe, he would call Karen in the morning and see if she was noticing the change in town. Everything seemed normal in Learning now, except for Karen.
….
Karen was painting. It was a haunted house with demons and evil bird spirits floating all around it. The more she painted, the more nervous she became. She was nervous about how pleasant everything seemed in Learning. People were saying hello to her in the grocery store and waving to her as they passed her working out on the porch. She was seeing more people enjoying the weather outside than she had all summer. She felt like everyone in Learning was being lulled into a false sense of security. It was like a cloud of forgetfulness had descended on the whole town.
Karen wanted so badly for everything to be over, so she and Ty could have a normal life together, but she knew there was more to come. She sensed something terrible lurking just around the corner, but she didn’t know what it was. Karen wished her father would come back and tell her if she was still doing the right thing. Everything had been so easy up to now, yet she still didn’t know who the man in Coeur d’Alene was. She might never know.

Karen was worried about her relationship with Ty. She didn’t know if it would survive everything that was going on. It was such a new and fragile thing. Karen wanted to protect her relationship, but she needed to be focused on only this one all important thing. Stopping the swarm had to be the only priority. It was monumental. She had a chance to change the world, and she wasn’t going to blow it for lack of trying.
Karen wasn’t sure if Ty truly understood anymore how important what they were doing was for the world. It felt like someone had cast a spell on him, and on everyone else in Learning. They were all going to forget everything.
Karen tried to impress upon Ty the extreme importance of the task at hand, but Ty seemed only to get annoyed with her. Ty was getting sick of ghost stories, and who could blame him. Soon his town would be free of them all together. He could meet someone nice and settle down. He could live a normal life completely free from all of this. He had lost his sense of urgency about trying to find the next host. Maybe he had lost even his desire to have anything to do with it.
Equally as strange to Karen, was how Ty seemed to have gotten over the death of his best friend. He hardly ever spoke of Sheriff Kemperson anymore except to point out how much more organized the new sheriff was. Ty couldn’t say enough about Elizabeth Ryan. “She is just what this town needs now!”
It was disturbing.

Karen was thinking about getting a place in Coeur d’Alene so she could be closer to the man she needed to save. This was probably a wise time to give Ty another chance to get off the hook. It might be better if she and Ty didn’t see each other until this was all over. Maybe she should just go, so Ty wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. Then, when it was over, Karen could come back to Learning and she and Ty could make plans.
Karen decided to drop by Ty’s house around the time he’d be getting home from work tonight. She would lay it all out for him and see what he had to say. Karen knew she would feel better leaving Ty in Learning. If The Occupants were really done here, Ty would be safe. There was still a lot of danger in Coeur d’Alene.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN
September 30
Mahogany was walking quickly down the center of the street. It was after midnight, and she was going with The Occupants to pay a visit on the local deputy sheriff. They were going to kill him tonight, and there was nothing Mahogany could do to stop them.
At first, Mahogany wanted to convince the swarm to spare Ty Miller by screaming at them from her special room. She opened her mouth. Then she saw her husband Walter. He looked less substantial than the last time (this time, Mahogany could almost see right through him) but what he lacked in substance, he made up for in intensity. His face looked grave and sad and so very tired. Mahogany was struck dumb by the sight of him.
Walter told Mahogany that if she tried to abort this murder The Occupants had planned, they would become suspicious. They would start looking for the one who made the suggestion. They wouldn’t find Mahogany, but they would know they were being deceived.
There was no pattern in the way the swarm chose its victims, and there was no need involved. They wouldn’t parish if they failed to murder or cause pain. Killing and torturing was just what the occupants did. They liked it, and it was easy.

To the occupants, the murder they had planned for Ty Miller was nothing special. Oh, it was certainly clever and would be good for a few laughs, but it wasn’t going to change anything in the long run. Ty was somebody it would be okay to kill. That was all. If Mahogany told them not to do it, they would see that Ty Miller was something special. Then they would remember thinking they had seen him in the airport, and they would finally take note of everything else that was strange. They might be able to figure out that Mahogany wasn’t where they thought she was. Then they would go for the Penwalski woman for sure, and they would win.
Walter said the only way was to let the swarm kill the deputy and hope that the woman could stop them by herself. Mahogany had sadly agreed.

So Mahogany walked, feeling helpless and guilty. She got to Ty’s house just as he was pulling up in his police car. She waited with her possessors on the front lawn until he got inside. Then, she went up and opened the door. It was unlocked (small town people were so trusting), but it wouldn’t have mattered. You can never keep really bad things out if they want to get in.
Ty went straight into the bathroom. He ran water and brushed his teeth. He didn’t hear the floor boards creaking in the other room. He made faces at himself and sang/hummed the “oh-weem-oh way-way” melody from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” while he brushed. He felt like things were going to be okay now. The nightmare was over.
Mahogany went down the hall and stood outside the bathroom and watched him. He was such a nice man, and handsome. He should be happy, planning a family maybe, not chasing spirits, and certainly not being murdered in his bathroom.
Ty was the only person in Learning who seemed to give a damn about Mahogany. He had stopped by more than once to make sure she was alright, and he drove by in the police car and waved at her in the mornings. Mahogany new Ty drove by specifically to check on her even on the mornings he didn’t stop. Ty hadn’t come by in the last few months, but Mahogany understood about that, and she didn’t blame him.

Ty put his toothbrush back in its holder and scratched at his left arm. All of a sudden, it itched terribly, but then his whole body had started to itch. It spread so quickly. The itching was worse than his boyhood experience with Poison Ivy or anything else he could imagine. It was as if every inch of him was being pricked and made to tingle. Ty felt the discomfort all the way to his bones. He took off his clothes so he could scratch better even though the rational part of his mind told him he was making a big mistake.
The thought of a hot salt bath flashed through his mind but was overtaken by a surge of itching. Ty knew he was scratching too hard and knew that scratching like that was always a bad idea, but he couldn’t stop himself, and he didn’t care. This was unbearable.
As Tyler continued to scratch, flakes of dry, dead skin began falling to the floor. He didn’t’ notice them at first. He was concentrating too hard on scratching. Eventually though, he did glance down at the floor while scratching his feet. There was a pretty thick layer of pale, grayish brown flakes. He looked at his fingernails and saw that they were caked with blood and dry skin. He was scratching himself raw, but it didn’t’ hurt. It just itched.
There was a full length mirror in the bedroom, so Ty went there to see himself in it (he didn’t stop scratching on the way). He thought that he must have picked up some kind of rash.
Ty turned the light on in the bedroom and stood facing the mirror for a long time. His normally deep brown skin had gone completely white with a coating of lose dry skin. He looked Caucasian except for the places he had scratched the most. Those places were blood red.
Ty simply stood there looking at himself and itching like a madman. It was like hell on earth, and he could hardly think. He knew he had to make himself stop scratching right then, so he did, for almost a full second.
Patches of dry skin were forming right before his eyes. They were almost like scales. He could see them thickening and wrinkling. It occurred to Ty very briefly; mid scratch that dry skin was one of the leading causes of aging.
There seemed to be nothing he could do to stop himself from scratching, so he decided to scratch just absolutely this one last spot one more time and then he would stop long enough to call for an ambulance.
Ty planned only to rub the spot a little, but as soon as he touched it, he got caught up in it. He couldn’t stop. The more he scratched, the more it itched, and the more he had to scratch. It was an addiction.
The occupants were enjoying themselves. They thought they were pretty clever alright. Ty was going to scratch all the way down to veins and arteries. Then he would bleed to death, and they would let him feel the pain for a while before he went out all the way. He was already bleeding pretty nicely from some spots, and he was still scratching them.

Karen got to Ty’s house at twelve-thirty. He lived in a tiny one bedroom house close to the center of town. Karen was glad to see the lights were still on. She went up to the house and knocked on the door. There was no answer. She waited a moment and then opened the door enough to see inside.
Standing in the middle of Ty’s small living room, next to what looked like it had to be a hand me down sofa (it was orange, blue and brown with tons of giant clocks all fixed at five minutes after two floating around on a sea of small birds and metronomes, an early model if ever there was one) was Karen’s father. His face and body were covered in thick red blood, and cockroaches were crawling all over him. They were crawling over his chest, out of his pant legs and onto his bare, bloody feet and hands.
Karen was happy to see her father. She believed he was there to help her convince Ty to let Karen handle things on her own for a while, or maybe, he was there to tell her it was over. She opened the door a little further and saw her father bring a bloody finger up to his lips, a sign for Karen to be quiet. Karen hesitated.

“You can’t come in, Karen.” Karl seemed to struggle to get the words out. Karen’s father was struggling just to hold himself to the spot where he was standing. The floor around him was covered in blood, and blood was dripping onto Ty’s ugly sofa.
“Why should I go?” Karen whispered. “I need to talk to Ty, and I’m sure he’s still awake.”
“Ty is not alone.” Karl said, his voice trembling and weak.
“Who…” but then Karen knew. “It’s them isn’t it? Oh my God, Daddy! We have to save him!”
“You can’t save him, Karen. You have to save yourself and save the only chance there is of stopping the swarm.”
“Daddy, I love him!” Karen was still whispering, but it felt as though she was going to explode.
“I know you do, Honey, and I’m so sorry for you. There is no way for me to fix this for you.”
Karl Penwalski disappeared, but the puddle of blood he had been standing in lingered afterwards as a grisly reminder. Karen wasn’t sure if the puddle was really there or just something her mind couldn’t yet release. She stood there looking at it and trying to decide what she should do.
If she walked away, Ty would be dead and so would her dreams of happiness. If she went inside, Ty might still die, and she would likely ruin any chance she had of making a difference in Coeur d’Alene. But maybe she had already done enough there. Maybe she had contacted the right person and he would remember her when the time came. Maybe, her job was done.
Then why was her father here?
She stood there frozen in the doorway until she heard Ty’s voice coming from the bedroom. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it sounded like he was hysterical about something. Karen decided. It could never be the right thing to stand by and let someone you loved be tortured and murdered if there was any chance you could save them. She opened the door the rest of the way.

“Ty?” She called timidly into the room. “I’m here. Are you feeling better?”
Karen walked into the living room and headed toward the back of the house. She had to walk around the bloody stain her father had left. She thought she could actually feel his disapproval.
“Ty?” This time a little louder.
She came to the bedroom and saw Ty standing in front of the mirror.
“Karen, I…Oh my God!”
Ty scratched his left arm creating deepening wounds in the flesh that covered his brachial artery. Blood gushed out of it quickly coating the mirror and soaking the brown shag carpet.
The occupants laughed. They heard Karen come in, and they didn’t mind an audience. They were invisible after all, and there was nothing Karen could do to stop what was happening. They thought it might be fun to murder Karen as she scrambled to help him.
Karen got closer to where Ty was standing. She wanted so badly to scream at him to stop, but she knew she had to stay calm. She looked around the room concentrating very hard until she saw where Mahogany was sitting on the bed.

“Hello, Mrs. Fletcher,” she said in her most pleasant voice.
Ty stopped scratching long enough to see the old woman on his bed.
“Oh my…”
“Ty, I brought you the lotion you asked me to bring, for your rash. You must stop scratching now.” Karen spoke very slowly and deliberately. She was hoping Ty wasn’t too far gone to play along.
“You probably don’t know me Mrs. Fletcher,” Karen said turning back to the old woman. “I’m Karen Noland. I moved in this winter to do some painting. Ty told me that the two of you were friends.”
Ty stood there in his blood soaked fruit of the looms holding his arms out in front of himself, thinking “I will not scratch. I will not scratch,” but he was almost certain he would have to scratch again very, very soon.
“This is really a bad time for Ty,” Karen went on.
“Do you think you could come back in a couple of days?”
Mahogany didn’t say anything to Karen. To the swarm she said, “This isn’t what we planned. Let’s get out before it’s too late. She knows something. Maybe she has powers. We don’t know what to do. Let’s just play along and leave.”
Soon Mahogany could hear her own words echoing throughout the body that once belonged to her. She got up and left without ever saying a word to Ty or Karen.

As soon as the old woman left the house, Ty’s itching stopped, and the dry patches darkened and softened into healthy skin as he watched in amazement. Ty plopped down on his bed almost in a faint. Now he could feel the pain he had inflicted on himself. He was still bleeding badly from several places, but the worst was his left arm. His artery was pumping out volumes of blood, and it was beginning to puddle on the floor. Karen got some towels and had Ty put pressure on it. Then she took the belt from a pair of pants on the floor and made a tourniquet. She got Ty into a coat and helped him out to the car and sped him to the local hospital.
“I can’t believe I almost scratched myself to death,” he said. He was cradling his left arm in his right hand. “I couldn’t even feel what I was doing, but I can sure feel it now. How did you know I needed you?”
“I didn’t. I was coming over to let you off the hook.”
“What?” Ty was feeling dizzy again.
“I was going to suggest we break up for a while. I could see that you were having doubts.” Karen glanced over at Ty. He looked so much better than he had a few minutes ago. His color had completely returned.
“Oh,” Ty said. Was it embarrassment or shame he was feeling? He couldn’t quite place it. “I woke up one morning feeling like everything was okay again in Learning. Everything felt so right. I was thinking that maybe the bad times were over.” He paused looking at Karen. “What’s really sad is that I didn’t care what those monsters did once they left Learning. We would be safe here and everything would be okay. I know how horrible that is. I’m not like that. I’m going to see this through. I will be right by your side until this is over.”
“Well, that may be a moot point,” Karen said keeping her face forward and her eyes on the road. “We lucked out tonight. We caught them off guard. Tomorrow is another day.”
“You shouldn’t have come in. Now you’re in even more danger.”
“I had to come in. I’m in love with you.”
“I’m not worth the whole world, Karen.”
“The world will still be here.”

By the time they pulled up at the hospital, Ty’s bleeding had stopped from almost all of his wounds and many of them were practically healed. It really did look like he had simply over scratched a rash. The only really bad spot was his left arm where he had opened up the artery. That didn’t seem to be healing nearly as quickly.
Karen told the two E. R. nurses (a woman and a man didn’t seem overly curious about Ty’s wounds) that Ty scratched himself in his sleep during a bad dream he was having. Everyone seemed to buy it.
Ty went to surgery that night. He had to have stitches put in and was told he’d probably end up with a pretty bad scar.
When it was over, Ty was put into a room to stay overnight. His hemoglobin was a little low from the loss of blood, and the doctor wanted to make sure things were stable before Ty went home.
“I think you should get out of town for a while,” Karen said when they were alone in Ty’s hospital room, “until this all blows over…maybe forever. If the transfer takes place, the occupants may come looking for you.”
Ty didn’t respond, so Karen went on. “My father told me they are limited by the person they’re using. If you can get out of town without them knowing it right away, there’s a good chance you can be safe.”

“I’m not going to give up Karen,” Ty said finally. “I think she…they may have killed my mother.”
“We’ve never talked about your parents.”
“I didn’t really know what to tell you. Both my mother and father are dead. I haven’t thought about how they died lately, but when I was getting my stitches, I remembered some things.”
“How did your parents die?”
“My father died of natural causes, but I think someone murdered my mother. My father thought so too. I never listened to him back then. He was so senile already. He said that witches killed my mother.”
“When did she die?”
“In November…almost ten years ago. They found her in the fire place all curled up in a ball. She was completely burned. Everyone assumed she killed herself even though none of us could think of a reason she’d do it. I guess I blamed my father’s condition. I thought maybe she simply couldn’t stand seeing him deteriorate in front of her eyes, but Dad said it was witches.”
“I’m sorry Ty. It never occurred to me that you might be suffering as much as me. I should have been a better friend.”
“No, I’m okay. It’s just…I can’t not try and do something about this,” Ty said, his voice getting louder. Then he brought his voice down to a whisper. “I think I know what we should do.”
“Why don’t you come and stay with me, and then, in a couple of days, when you’re feeling better, we can do something. You need your rest.”
“We might not have a couple of days, Karen. You know that. I think we should leave tomorrow. I’ll tell Sheriff Ryan I need to get out of town for a while and that you’re coming with me. I’ll say we’re going to New York to stay with some friends of yours. She knows we’ve been seeing each other. I’ve talked about you a lot over the last few days. She won’t be surprised about my going off with you. Then if Mrs. Fletcher comes looking for us…”
“Ty, I think you’re better at this than I am,” Karen said with a weak smile.
“Let’s just hope we have some luck finding the person who can stop all of this before the swarm gets to him. We don’t have much time.”
“Not much time at all.” Karen agreed.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT
October 1
Mahogany was stretched out on the floor. She had been there since about one o’clock in the morning. She was convulsing, and inside, she was screaming. The Occupants were angry, angrier than she had ever seen them.
When Mahogany got home from the deputy’s house, the swarm was in an uproar. They realized that they had been tricked, and they were searching for the one who had done it. They knew that some of the voices they had listened to recently did not come from the usual places. Now they were sure that somehow someone had gotten in and tricked them. There was at least one other.
Mahogany could hear the thoughts.
How could anyone else have gotten in? This has never happened before. Could it be the old bag? Could she have been leading us astray? How could she do it without us knowing? We know all of her thoughts. But haven’t there been a lot less of them lately? Hasn’t she been awfully quiet? Why aren’t we hearing her thoughts about this? Why aren’t we hearing her think that she had nothing to do with what happened? Maybe she’s hiding somewhere pretending to be one of us. Why would she choose those people to help if she had a way to help? We know she hates what we do. Why would she wait so long?
Mahogany listened to their questions for what felt like hours. Then the Occupants began calling her name. At first, they called sweetly in the voices that they used to convince her in the beginning. Mahogany hadn’t heard those voices for a long time.
“We won’t hurt you if you tell us how you did it,” they lied. “We are only curious.”
Mahogany stayed in the little room of her mind where her thoughts were safe. She could feel the surging anger of the swarm in her head. It was a stabbing, maddening pain that seemed to blanket her whole being. Still she would not leave her hiding place. She would not be responsible for allowing these monstrosities to continue bringing horror to the world. It was her job to help stop them. She would not come out.
“Why can’t we find her?” The Occupants asked themselves. “Someone must be helping her hide,” was the answer.
“Walter, come back! I need you. I don’t know if I can stand this,” Mahogany cried with her mind.
There was a sharp, stabbing pain in her lower abdomen, and Mahogany tried to curl up into a ball, but the occupants wouldn’t let her.
“If you don’t come out of your hiding place woman, we will make you wish like never before that you had died with your old friends at Meadow Brook. You haven’t even felt a portion of our power.”
Mahogany heard them, and she believed them. A part of her wanted to go ahead and give up. The pain was already more than she thought she would ever bear. Anything else would surely drive her mad. If she gave up, the swarm would know all that she knew. They would know that their very existence was in jeopardy. They would put a quick and violent end to the threats against them, and Mahogany would have that on her conscience as well. She would not go out even if her head split open.
The Occupants had known Mahogany for a long time, and they knew what things were hardest for her to stand. She hated the pain that their anger and laughter caused her, and she hated having to listen to their twisted thoughts and memories of old murders, but even more, Mahogany Fisher hated the crawling. It was something that most of the people got used to on some levels, but not Mahogany. The occupants knew they could make the frail, old woman do whatever they wanted her to do. It might take them a minute or two, but they would win.

Mahogany could hear them planning her down fall, and she was terrified. They were starting to swarm, and she could feel them crawling through every fiber of her body. She was trembling. The occupants were a hundred million bees, and they were everywhere. She could feel them crawling under her scalp and along her skin. It felt as though she was choking as they filled her throat and caused it to swell. She could feel their tiny legs and wings brushing up against the hairs in her ears, and she could feel them pushing outwards from her stomach and her breasts, yet she couldn’t move at all to stop them.
“Walter, Please!”
“Come out, you dead, old bitch!” The spirits were buzzing and chanting, and the sound of it filled Mahogany’s brain so that it was difficult for her even to hear her own thoughts.
“Come out…Come out…Come out!” That was all she could hear. It was pulsing through her whole body.
Mahogany tried to fight, to hold out. She would stay put, and sooner or later, the swarm would have to get about its business. They didn’t have time for this.
“Come out…Come out!”
“STOP IT!” Mahogany screamed out from her hiding place. The pain was unbearable. Her scream shattered the chanting. The occupants recognized her voice as that of the other, the one who had led them astray. Now, they were certain but even more angry because they couldn’t find her.
On some very small level (Mahogany only had small levels left) Mahogany realized what she had done by calling out, but it didn’t matter anymore. She couldn’t think about it. All her mind was processing was the buzzing, the crawling and the pain. They were stinging her now, everywhere, from inside.
Mahogany couldn’t make herself think. There was too much going on. The swarm had started to chant again, and Mahogany didn’t even know who was talking to her. Somehow it was starting to sound like Walter.
“Come out…Come out…Come out!”
Buzzing…crawling…stinging pain.
There was so much noise, and Mahogany was so confused by it that she wasn’t able to think on her own. She knew she had to do something, so she did what her mind was telling her to do. She came out…and the swarm knew everything, all at once, but the agony didn’t end. It wasn’t going to end for a long time.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE
October 7
Two months ago Ralph Isker laughed when he told his wife and teenage daughter about the phone call. At first the woman sounded normal and relatively sane. After listening to her for a minute, Ralph thought she was merely one of the many Idaho citizens who objected to his wife’s politics.
Ralph’s wife Margaret Isker was running for an Idaho Senate seat and her campaign was based mainly on her opposition to the legalization of gambling in Idaho. It was that issue that had thrust her into the running in the first place. She had been holding rallies and debates over the past four years, trying to get people angry about what was going on at the state bargaining tables.
Margaret knew what gambling could do to people. After all, it had ruined her brother’s life in only five years. Margaret’s brother, Ben, had been a successful businessman in Bozeman, Montana. He owned a print shop that got business from all over the country. The quality of work they put out was that good. He had a business reputation that people would pay money for.
In the beginning, Ben was a man with seemingly no bad habits. Ralph had gotten to know him pretty well over the years, and the man didn’t smoke or drink or even swear. He gave to charities and worked on projects in his community whenever he was asked. He was an outstanding citizen all around, and the people of Bozeman respected him.
All that changed when Ben got addicted to gambling. It started when they added the poker machines to the Sundance Tavern. The Sundance was on Ben’s way home from work, and he stopped there occasionally to have a pop and shoot the breeze with some of his friends who hung out there. When they put the poker machines in, Ben began stopping by more often sometimes on his way home from work, sometimes on his way to work and sometimes during the middle of the day. Ben always went right to the row of poker machines near the back of the small tavern. He had his money out of his pocket and in that first machine before even noticing who else was in the room.
It started out as a harmless amusement, but it didn’t take long before Ben was going to the tavern every weekend and spending hours putting twenty after twenty into his favorite machine.
At first, Ben would win a little bit of money almost every time, ten or twenty dollars. A few times he even left with an extra five or six hundred dollars in his pocket. Later it got so that Ben never “won” any money because he would never let himself quit, no matter how far ahead he was. He just kept putting in cash and pushing the buttons that made the cash disappear. Then, he’d go home depressed.
The depression over gambling losses led to Ben’s drinking. It only took about a year and half for Silvia, Ben’s wife, Ralph’s sister-in-law (once removed) to realize there was a big problem. Ben was spending money that should have been used to take care of his family and pay his bills to feed the poker machines. His marriage was failing. His business was in trouble, and Ben didn’t seem to notice.
After about three years of living with the problem, Sylvia gave her husband an ultimatum. Either he had to get help with his gambling and his drinking, or she was going to take their two children and leave him. Four months after that, Sylvia moved out.
Ralph and Margaret went to Bozeman and planned to talk some sense into Ben. They wanted to help him, but Ben didn’t want their help, and he made it perfectly clear that he resented the insinuation that he needed help.
Eventually, Ben sold his business and moved to Las Vegas. Nobody heard from him for about two years after that. Then, one day, Sylvia got a call. Ben had been killed inside a jail cell where he was being held for armed robbery. One of his partners in crime had beaten him to death. No one was sure why.
Ralph’s wife believed and had convinced a lot of politically active Idahoans, that wherever gambling was big, one could expect to find an abundance of all the other vices that went along with it. There would be loan sharks, prostitutes and increased drug and alcohol addiction. The crime rate would go up as people tried to get money to support their gambling habits. A whole new crowd of people would come to Idaho.
Margaret wasn’t going to stand by and let her beautiful city be turned into another Las Vegas. It didn’t matter that she had never been to Las Vegas. She intended to do something about it, (that was the type of person she was) and she was doing something.

Ralph didn’t much care himself. He thought people should be able to do whatever they wanted. He hated crusades that affected whole populations especially ones that started because somebody’s loved one made some bad mistakes. Sure, gambling addictions could be devastating for some people, but it wasn’t as if the mob was going to be moving to North Idaho anytime soon. It was just too damned cold.
Although, Ralph didn’t agree with his wife all the time, he intended to support her all the way. The problem was that there were a lot of rich and powerful people who wanted gambling in Idaho, and they didn’t like all of the negative publicity that Margaret was stirring up. Ralph was half expecting some kind of harassment to begin soon, and the woman on the phone sounded like she was going to deliver the first dose of it.
“Mr. lsker?” She sounded pleasant enough, perhaps a very slight hint of New York in her voice.
“Yes, this is Ralph Isker.”
“My name is Karen. I have something important to tell you, and I need you to listen. Please don’t hang up until I’m finished. It’s a matter of life and death.”
“I’m listening.” Ralph tried not to sound afraid.
“You have to start being careful. Your life is in danger, and your family is in danger.” Karen continued.
At this point, Ralph thought about hanging up, but then, he decided to listen to the whole message. He might need details to give to the police, and a legitimate threat from the opposition might actually help his wife’s campaign.
“Go on,” Ralph said.
“On October tenth of this year, at about ten in the morning you will be approached. Someone will offer you extended life and something you feel you need. I don’t know exactly what that will be. It might be money or success or revenge. I don’t know, but whatever they offer you, you must refuse them, no matter how much you want to accept. They are tricksters, Mr. Isker. If you let them in, you’ll be destroying yourself and your family. You must refuse them even if it means you have to die. Do you understand me?”
Ralph was actually relieved to find that the person on the other end of the phone was just an everyday run of the mill crackpot. She was probably picking names randomly from the phonebook. Ralph had to hold back a laugh.
“Um, yes. I understand. Tell me, how do you know all of this?” He was having fun now. After all, what harm could it do?
“My father…almost twenty years ago…he let them in. Now he’s in hell. He is tortured by millions of cockroaches that eat away at his soul. The only way he can be saved is if you refuse the swarm when it comes for you.”
“Okay, well thank you so much for calling. You have a nice day now,” Ralph said still trying to hold back giggles.
“Ralph?”
“Yes.”
“Even if you don’t believe me, please don’t forget this call.” Her voice sounded so sincere. This wasn’t a crank call exactly. This Karen person honestly believed what she was saying, poor thing.
“I won’t,” Ralph said, and then he hung up.
Tammy, Ralph’s fifteen year old, thought the call sounded pretty funny the way her father told it, but Margaret didn’t. She thought Ralph should call the police and report it.
“People like that can be so unpredictable,” she said. “You can never know what they’re capable of, and she has our address.”
Ralph said he would call the police if the woman ever called back again, but he didn’t think that would happen.

Now, Ralph was sitting in the study behind his antique, oak desk that faced his wife’s matching desk, looking at a small piece of plain, white paper with an actual, bona fide death threat typed on it. He found it on the windshield of his gray Camry when he was leaving the life insurance office where he had done business for the past sixteen years. The note was tucked under the wiper blade on the driver’s side. The message was only one line long.
“Shut your wife up, or we will.”
It said that, just plain as day. You couldn’t get confused about something like that.
Ralph wasn’t sure what he should do. He supposed he should call the police, but something told him that it wouldn’t help. There was no way of knowing who sent the note. So many people had so much to gain if Margaret Isker would just shut her mouth. It could have been any one of a number of people or just another crackpot.
Ralph wondered about the importance of what his wife was doing. Was it worth putting herself and her family at risk? On the other hand, the fact of the note made his wife’s point all the more valid. People who sent notes like that had been getting their way for a very long time. Even if Ralph thought his wife’s efforts were a little misguided, he believed whole-heartedly in her right to make those efforts. His parents taught him that if you believed in something there were good and bad ways to stand up for it. Bullying the opposition was not a good way.
It was late when Margaret got home, and she was tired. She had been out most of the day campaigning and still trying to keep up with her law practice. Ralph was waiting for her in the bedroom. He showed her the note, and together they decided to take it to the police station first thing in the morning and ask for some kind of protection. Ralph folded the note into a small white square and put it into his wallet.

CHAPTER THIRTY
October 4
If it wasn’t so horrible, Mahogany thought that her whole ordeal would have been considered gut splittingly funny. Here, she had fought with her entire soul to protect Deputy Miller and the Noland woman from the swarm. She’d allowed herself to be tortured to the point of madness, and it was all for nothing.
It was six days until the transfer, and the occupants didn’t give a damn about two puny humans and their quest to put an end to everything. They were a little curious about how the two came to know so much (even Mahogany didn’t know that) but beyond that, the spirits inside her were not concerned.
Tyler and Karen could be no match for the power the occupants had at their command. There was absolutely nothing they could do. Besides, the two young crusaders didn’t really know anything. Sure, they obviously knew about Texas but that was no big deal. By the time the swarm moved to Texas, it would all be done. Everything was going according to the plan just like clockwork.
The seeds had been planted. Nothing those two children could come up with would prevent the occupants who were centuries wise and timelessly powerful from fulfilling their destiny. They were indestructible.
Mahogany wanted to believe that overconfidence could be a weakness for them, but from where she was sitting, the occupants looked pretty damned indestructible.

The collection of spirits swarming through Mahogany’s body and mind had allowed themselves to waste only a small amount of time even thinking about Ty and Karen. Once they had gotten Mahogany to spill her guts, the general sentiment was, “Okay, we’ll just kill them on October eleventh. Just so there are no loose ends.”
The occupants wouldn’t use any more energy on dealing with such a minor threat to their greatness, but they were willing to devote a great deal of effort toward making sure that Mahogany’s last days as a living breathing entity, were as close as anyone had ever gotten to hell on Earth.
There was still a lot that had to be done in Coeur d’Alene, a lot of plotting and manipulation, but would make certain that every second of every day Mahogany would feel the crawling and stinging that had driven her out of hiding. If they could drive her out of that place, they could drive her to anything.
It was looking more and more probable that she would be one of them by morning, and there was always room for one more spirit. She would make them stronger. She would come to forget her struggles and learn to taste the deliciousness of immortality and power.

Mahogany felt cheated and so alone that she almost gave her whole self over. She knew that they would take her, and she would become just one more in the swarm, another insane little creature. If she joined them, though, there would be no end to her life in the swarm. She would be a part of that madness forever…unless someone stopped them.
Today, something floated down to Mahogany from someplace unknown. It was something vague and almost hopeful. Maybe it was the fact that her ten years of punishment were finally coming to an end, but it didn’t feel like that was it. It was so very slight and so incredibly intangible, but to Mahogany, through all the stinging and cacophonous pain, it felt like Walter.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE
October 5
Karen and Ty got to Coeur d’Alene around 8:00am. It was quite cold. It felt like snow was just around the corner.
Karen drove Ty to the hospital in spite of his protests. She wanted to have someone take a look at his arm. What was left of his wound had started to ooze a little from the stitches. Karen was afraid it had gotten infected.
They spent about an hour at the hospital, and when they left, Ty had a clean dressing and some antibiotics.
From the hospital, Karen and Ty went to grocery store and picked up a newspaper. Ty glanced through it as Karen drove. They decided to drive past the houses of their ten candidates and see if anything obviously strange was going on. The first stop was the home of Ray Irwin, twelve Fernan Terrace Road.
Karen parked in front of the big, two story, blue and grey house and was quickly struck by how extremely normal it appeared. There were two big, pine trees out front in the yard which was surrounded by a medium high, redwood picket fence. There was a white porch swing on the front porch and a bowl of what looked like cat food close to the door.
It was the middle of the day, and there was no one out and about. It didn’t look like anyone was home at the Irwin’s. The curtains behind the big picture window in front of the house were open part way, and Karen and Ty could see that it was dark inside. They walked up to the door and knocked anyway. There was no answer, so they went back to the car and sat there for a few minutes waiting for something to happen. Nothing did.

The next stop was 2509 Vista Drive, the home of Robert Isaacson. It was a dinky house (much smaller than the Irwin place), a one story shoe box with a sagging, moss infested roof. Its bright green paint was peeling so badly that it made the little house appear almost tiger striped, and the small square lawn in front of the house looked as if it hadn’t been watered or mowed in decades. Even the tall, spiny weeds looked thirsty and neglected.
There was a dirty, lime green V.W. Bug parked in the narrow driveway. It was dented and rusty and fit the house perfectly. Karen noticed that one of the rear tires had gone completely flat.
At the door, Karen and Ty were greeted by a woman in her late thirties. She was wearing an old, brown terry cloth bathrobe with dried toothpaste drippings all over the front of it. The woman’s hair was greasy and uncombed, and her pasty, white skin was punctuated with bright red, pimples and large, militant blackheads. She was holding an open bottle of tequila in one hand and a smoking cigarette in the other.
“Wha cannI do fur you?” she asked drunkenly. A cloud of foul smelling smoke came out of her mouth.
“We’re looking for Robert Isaacson. Does he live here?” Karen asked trying not to cough.
The woman looked Karen up and down briefly. Then she looked over at Ty. She smiled at him.
“Are you looking for Robert too?”
“Yes, I am.” Ty smiled back.
“What do you want with my husband?” She looked down at Ty’s tennis shoes and took a long drag from her cigarette as she gave him the full toe to head once over.
“We just want to talk to him for a minute.” Karen said unable to keep herself stepping between Ty and the other woman’s eyes.
Ty who seemed perfectly at ease said, “Exactly, just for a minute.”
“It’s really important,” Karen finished.
“Oh is it?” The woman made no attempt to hide her sarcasm. She definitely did not like Karen. “Well, I guess you’d better come in then.”
She took another drag from her cigarette and stepped away from the door, letting it swing shut behind her.
Karen and Ty shared a look and shrugged their shoulders. Then, they went inside. Mrs. Isaacson was sitting in the living room in front of a small television set that was currently broadcasting a rip roaring episode of The Family Feud. It was an old one from back when Richard Dawson was still alive.
The TV was a black and white model that sat in all its twelve inch glory at the center of the room. When Ty came in, he almost tripped over the cord that plugged it into the dirt caked power socket at the base of the wall.
The inside of the house was almost completely covered with dirty clothes and dishes. There were plates and silverware with what looked like century old meals caked to them piled up on the floor by the sofa. There were linen and underwear mountains growing up from each piece of furniture.
There was a strange, rotten odor that hung in the air. Granted, there were a lot of strange odors in that room, but this one stood out somehow. It was foul and almost wicked in its intensity. Karen thought she might have to turn and run.

“You may as well have a seat, whoever you are. Robert isn’t here yet.”
“When do you expect him home?” Ty asked. He was trying hard not to gag.
“I don’t know. He said he was never coming back, but then he always says that. You know men. Don’t you, Honey?”
She winked at Karen who responded by shivering violently in spite of all her efforts to control it.
“When did he leave?” Ty asked, swallowing hard and now trying desperately not to inhale again.
“I don’t remember. I think it was back during the vodka. You know it really sucks having to drink that cheap ass shit. I should be drinking the good shit. Um…I guess it would have been last night. Do you know when Wheel of Fortune comes on?”
“Maybe, we should come back another time,” Karen said still trying to smile.
“I told you to sit…down.” Her tone was stern.
It reminded Ty of his childhood and the summer he’d spent with his strict grandmother back in West Virginia. Ty was only nine years old at the time, and his grandmother would make him dress for dinner every night. She would preach to him about education and cleanliness while he ate. If Ty got up from the table without asking to be excused, she would make him sit at the table for another half an hour without saying a word. Ty always thought the old woman was a little crazy, but no one else seemed to notice.
“We’re really sorry to have bothered you, Mrs. Isaacson. We’ll just be going now.” Ty said.
Karen took Ty’s hand, and together they turned to walk away.
There was an explosion just over their heads, and Karen was slapped in the face by a piece of glass that fell from the light fixture. There was a cut in her cheek. She put the heel of her hand up to it. It wasn’t very deep, but there was quite a bit of blood.
Ty and Karen stood frozen for a few seconds and then turned around very slowly. The drunken woman was pointing an old, silver revolver in their direction and smiling like the Cheshire cat.
“Now, sit down, and we’ll just all wait here for Robert.” She motioned the gun toward the couch.

Karen and Ty went over to the couch. They had to move some of the debris out of the way in order to sit down. The rotten smell seemed even worse now. Ty wrinkled his nose. Karen pulled her purse around to her lap, and Mrs. Isaacson pulled the hammer back on the gun. It clicked.
“I was just going to get some tissue for my face,” Karen said nervously. The woman relaxed a little, and Karen dug around in her purse until she found a small, half full packet of Kleenex. She took a few out and held them up to her cheek. It didn’t take long for the bleeding to stop.
“There. Isn’t this nice?” Mrs. Isaacson said.
“What do you want?” Karen asked, trying to sound at least a little cordial.
“I want you to tell me how you found out already.”
“Found out what?” Ty asked.
“Don’t be stupid, Mister. I know you’re with the cops, and I know you know about Robert. I don’t care that you know. I just want to know how you came to know so fast, just for my own peace of mind.”
Ty had to look down at his shirt to make sure he didn’t have on his uniform or any other tale tell items that would give his deputy status away. There was nothing.
Karen and Ty looked at each other in almost comic bewilderment. Neither of them knew for sure what had happened to Robert, but both were almost sure they didn’t want to.
There was a thick silence that lasted about a minute. Mrs. Isaacson held the gun very steadily with one hand and took the last drag of her cigarette. Then she put the cigarette out on the arm of her chair.

“Did you kill your husband, Mrs. Isaacson?” Ty asked evenly.
“Well of course I did. Wouldn’t you?” Her voice still had a bit of a slur to it, but it seemed clearer now.
“What do you mean?”
“He was the biggest asshole that ever drew breath. He wasn’t even a man. Robert should have been killed before he was born. Don’t you think, Missy?”
“I…I..don’t know. I never met your husband.” Karen brought her hand up to her neck.
“Well take a look behind that couch you’re sitting on, but if you scream, I’ll have to shoot you. Well, I won’t have to shoot you, but I will any way. Go ahead..look!”
Karen and Ty turned around together and saw the dead man. He was sprawled out behind the sofa with his face looking up at the ceiling. He was about 5’7″ with dirty blonde hair. His face was twisted in disbelief, and his yellow green eyes were still open. He had probably never been a handsome man, but this was a particularly unflattering moment.
“Now you tell me if he aint just the perfect picture of a complete asshole.”
Karen counted six bullet holes in Robert. Three were in his chest, and three were in his legs. One was just to the left of his groin. The body was pale and greenish and dressed only in a pair of greying Fruit of the Looms. It was lying in a lake of blood and other foul smelling body fluids that had soaked into some of the pieces of laundry that were scattered near him.
Karen couldn’t suppress a small whimper. Ty exhaled loudly and shook his head.
“Robert, I’d like you to meet…Aah, but I didn’t get your names.”
Silence.
“What the hell are your fucking names?” She had let the gun fall to her lap, but now she raised it.
“Uh, I’m Ty and this is Karen.”
“Are you going to kill us?” Karen asked. Now, the smell from the body behind her was overwhelming because she knew what it was.
“Hmmm…I don’t know yet. I guess I can’t just have you sitting there forever, but if I let you go, you’ll bring all the other cops with you.”
“It won’t help to kill us, Mrs. Isaacson. The other police officers already know we’re here. They’ll be along soon to collect you if we don’t call in.” Ty said, suddenly sounding very official.
“How did you find out? I only killed him three days ago. I did it in the middle of the day when everybody was at work. I turned the TV up and turned on the radio. I turned on the blender and the vacuum cleaner too. And if you knew I killed him three days ago, why are you only here now?”

Ty and Karen exchanged a look that was almost too long for the liking of Mrs. Isaacson. Karen reached over and took Ty’s hand and gave it a squeeze. Then she looked back at the woman with the gun and said, “Robert was working undercover for us down at the station. He was helping us get the jump on some drug dealers who were coming over from New York. When he didn’t call in yesterday, we figured one of the dealers must have found out that he was working with the police. We weren’t surprised to find him dead, but we were surprised to find you holding the gun.”
“Oh…I don’t know if I believe that. Robert was the biggest weeny in the world. He wouldn’t have the balls to do anything the least bit risky. I think you’re tryin’ to sell me something smelly. You’re trying to trick me and save your skinny little ass.”
“We picked Robert because he was the way he was, and he agreed to do it because we promised him twenty-five thousand dollars to do it. Surely, you knew your husband well enough to know that he would have done almost anything to get out from under and live well. He hated this life.”
Karen made a sweeping gesture.
“And he hated you. He even had a mistress set up in a penthouse downtown. He was supporting her with the advances we were giving him. He was planning to divorce you as soon as he was finished with this last job.”
“Why that little snake! It’s a damned good thing I killed him before I found out about all this, or I would have made him really suffer. He told me he was flat broke. I don’t care about the cheating so much. I pretty much knew he was, but I could have divorced him and gotten alimony if I’d have known he had money. That cock sucker!”

“Why did you kill him, Mrs. Isaacson?” Karen asked.
“You can call me Mabel, Karen,” the woman answered in a subdued voice. “I killed Robert because I got sick of cleaning up after him, and I got sick of looking at his pathetic, little lying face.”
“What else did he lie about?”
“On my wedding day, Robert promised me that one day, I would live like a queen. He was going to do everything for me. He was going to take care of me. He was supposed to be my knight in shining armor. I believed him even though my parents warned me that he was no good. They told me that if I married him, they would never speak to me again. They said I would be disinherited, but I didn’t care because I had Robert, and he was all I needed.”
Mabel’s free hand went up to her cheek and picked absentmindedly at one of the larger pimples there.
“Almost as soon as we got married,” she went on, her voice beginning to seem almost clear, “Robert had an accident. He fell down the stairs one night when he was sleepwalking. He hurt his back and lost his job. That’s when he started drinking. I had to get a job as a waitress because it was all I knew how to do. I could have gone to college if it weren’t for that toe sucking bastard. He took my life away, and I’ve been taking care of him and supporting him for what seems like my whole life. Twenty years of this shit. It just didn’t seem fair.”
“I can understand that,” Karen said. She felt like she and Ty had taken control of the situation pretty well. “I just don’t know how we can help you.”
“I do,” Ty said,
“I don’t believe you want to help me,” Mabel said, raising the gun off her lap again.
“It really doesn’t matter to us,” Ty said. “Actually, it works out better for us that Robert is dead. This way he can’t blow his cover. A man who is as untrustworthy as your husband was couldn’t be trusted to keep a secret this big for very long. If he thought he could get more money working for the other side, he probably would have sold us out in a minute. He knew too much about us. We’ll just let the drug dealers think Robert was shot during an arrest, and we can let the police think the drug dealers shot him.”
Mabel didn’t say anything. She just looked at them and smiled a little. Neither Ty nor Karen knew what to make of that smile. They hoped she was still drunk enough to buy such an unbelievable story.
Karen reached over and squeezed Ty’s hand tightly. The contents of her stomach had started to rotate and gurgle. The smell from behind the couch was really getting to her. It brought back memories of dumpsters and rats.
“You’re looking a little green, Missy,” Mabel said.
“I’m not feeling so well,” Karen replied. “I need to get some air.”
“Well, I don’t know. Tell me how you intend to convince the police that I didn’t kill my husband.”
“We’ll call them from your phone. We’ll say we were just driving by to check and make sure Robert hadn’t skipped town or anything. We’ll say that as we pulled up, you ran out screaming. You can say you were at a motel for a few days because you and Robert were fighting about the mistress, and when you came home you found him dead.”
“There’s no reason anyone should question it,” Ty said.
“You really think that will work?”
“I know it will. It’s worked before,” Ty said.
There was a long, tense pause as Mabel considered her options. Karen brought a hand up to her mouth to stop the vomit she felt sure was on its way. Ty smiled reassuringly at Mabel.
“Well, I guess I have nothing to lose,” Mabel said. “If you’re lying, and I kill you, I’ll still go to jail, and I would feel bad, seeing as I’ve got nothing against you.”
“So you’ll let me make the call?” Ty tried not to sound excited.
“The phone is in the kitchen.” Mabel released the hammer on the revolver and set it down on the end table next to her chair.
Karen released a sigh and stood up. Ty stood up too, and they walked passed Mabel and into the kitchen. The phone was hanging on the wall over the counter that was covered in dirty dishes and half eaten food. Ty went over to it and dialed 911.
Karen went over to the sink that was also filled to overflowing with dirty, smelling, slime coated pots and pans, silverware and plates, and threw up. Then she started running water into the mess. She caught her breath and watched in wonder as the small stream of water trickled down the mountain of goo. What amazingly bad luck they were having.
“I need to report a murder,” Ty said into the receiver.
“Where are you calling from?” The woman’s voice from the other end of the telephone asked. She seemed unnaturally calm.
“2509 Vista Drive.”
“Who has been murdered?”
“Robert Isaacson. He lived here.”
“What’s your name?” The woman asked.
“I can’t tell you,” Ty said, “but I’m not the one who did it.”
“Who murdered Mr. Isaacson?”
“His wife will tell you when you get here.”
“She knows who did it?”
“She told me.”
“Are you in any danger?” The woman asked, still very calm.
“I don’t think so, but I have to leave now.”
Ty hung up the phone.

Karen and Ty walked back into the living room together. They were holding hands. Mabel was still sitting in her chair, and the gun was still sitting on the end table.
“The police will be here any minute, Mabel,” Karen said. “You should hide your gun.”
“Oh, I guess you’re right, Missy. Thank you.”
“We have to go now,” Ty said, “But some other officers will be here pretty soon. You just tell them whatever you think is best.” He looked longingly towards the door.
Mabel put her hand on top of the revolver.
“You told them it was me. Didn’t you?”
“Yes,” Ty said. He squeezed Karen’s hand as a silent apology.
“Well, that’s okay,” Mabel said. “I figured you would.”
Karen and Ty stood there for a second looking at the woman. She seemed small and beaten, but she also looked a little relieved.
No one said a word for what seemed a very long time. Then, the two imposters left the house the way they came in. Outside seemed very bright.
Soon, there would be sirens.

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO
November 25, Year Seven
The table is set, and everything is in place. The candles are burning. Danny stares at the flames, hoping to see something, some sort of sign in them. He wonders what he should do with his life now that he is alone.
This is his first major holiday without his wife Sandy and their two kids, Jenny and Ted. Danny wasn’t thinking it would be this hard, but it is all he can do to keep from crying in his cranberries.
He shouldn’t have let them go. He should have convinced Sandy that all of her suspicions were wrong. Instead Danny got indignant and told her to get out. How could she believe he’d been cheating on her? Sandy should know better than that. It still angers him to think about the tone of her voice.
Sandy told Danny she was certain he, her husband and father of their beautiful children, had been cheating on her (with his secretary, of all stupid clichés) for years. Sandy believes that on and off over the past sixteen years, Danny has been having sex in the office with Melissa: Melissa, who has been nothing but a friend to Sandy, and nothing but an utter professional in the office.
Sandy came in to surprise Danny on his fifty-fifth birthday. She brought a little chocolate cake and some kind of yellow flowers. When she came in, she saw Danny and Melissa embracing. She just stood there silent and judgmental and watched as Danny gave Melissa a long kiss on the lips. Sandy dropped the cake face down on the floor so its plastic cover dented and fell away. The cake bits and frosting were splattered for quite a good distance. Sandy is well over six feet tall, so the cake had a long ways to go.
Sandy took off without saying a word, without giving her husband a chance to explain. She thinks she knows everything, but she doesn’t know shit.
That all happened only three days ago but it feels as though a lifetime has passed.
That one time was the first time Danny had ever kissed Melissa or anyone other than Sandy for that matter. It isn’t because he hasn’t wanted to. Melissa is a damned good looking woman, even at forty-eight, and Danny has had all of sixteen years to think about kissing her, but he never even tried…until three days ago.
The day of the kiss, Melissa received some bad news. Her husband who was in the military (Danny thought Marines but maybe it was Air Force) was doing a tour overseas. It was just supposed to be a one year thing somewhere in the Spanish islands, so Melissa decided to stay where she was and keep her job and everything.
The day of the kiss was the day that Melissa’s husband Henry was supposed to arrive stateside. Henry’s plane crashed somewhere in the Midwest (Danny thought Ohio but it may have been one of those corn states) and he was killed. Melissa got the news while she was at work. Danny was comforting her, but somehow when he was holding her and patting her back, his mouth got confused and he kissed her. It was a good kiss, and Melissa didn’t seem to mind.
The fact that Sandy saw that kiss is all the proof Danny needs. There is a God, and he is a sadistic bastard.
Of course, there was no talking to Sandy. She was home and half packed before Danny was done apologizing to Melissa. When he got home Sandy wouldn’t let him get a word in edgewise. She was too busy screaming things like “I always knew!” and “our whole life together has been a lie.”
Danny was so angry that he stopped trying to explain. He let her fling her accusations at him. He waited in silence until finally, when Sandy was tired; it was Danny’s turn to scream.
“You have always wanted this to happen! You’ve been sitting around here waiting for me to fail. You probably had your bags packed weeks ago. Well, now the pressure’s off. You are free to go. I don’t need a wife who doesn’t trust me!”
Now she and the kids are just gone. This is so stupid. It’s three days later, and the reality is hitting Danny like bricks. He could very well be alone for the rest of his life. He wishes he had told Sandy what really happened. She would have understood. If only.
Danny resolves in his mind as he gazes across at the barely touched turkey that sits as his only dinner companion, to call Sandy first thing in the morning. She’s had plenty of time to cool off now, and the kids are probably scared to death. Everything is going to be alright in the…
Danny hears a noise that sounds like a chain saw coming from the other end of the table. Not seeing anything out of order, he leans over, bends down and sticks his head under the table. He thinks he sees something crawling on one of the table legs across from him. A spider? He moves farther under the table to take a closer look. An amazing and unbelievable thing happens next. Just as Danny gets his whole upper body under, the legs of the mahogany dining table disappear, and the table top hits Danny hard on the back of his neck. He is pinned in the world’s most uncomfortable position. Danny is trapped in a kind of half turn with his right arm pinned at his side pressing against his right leg. His left arm is stuck right to the bottom of the table top whose weight seems to be increasing. He can see some of the food that has fallen to the floor. For a moment the green beans seem to be moving along the black linoleum toward him, but that is only an illusion.
The whole situation is stunningly comical and unreal. Danny is sure that he has somehow managed to fall asleep at the dinner table while dazing into the candle flames. The candles!
Suddenly, Danny is washed with a prophetic sense of doom about the two candles that were sitting on the table. Where are they now? Surely they’ve fallen, and are perhaps melting a hole in the floor right now. If Sandy comes home to a big mess, she might just turn around and walk back out. Those candles will ruin everything.
Danny tries to push the table off, but it won’t budge, so he turns his head as much as possible the left. He sees flames dancing across the linoleum. There are two separate fires each about the size of a healthy sage plant. Danny figures there is one fire for each of the two tall yellow candles he’d used as center pieces.
The table remains perfectly balanced on Danny’s back. Although, under the circumstances (missing legs and all), the table should fall forward making it possible for Danny to get out from under. He tries to shift his weight to force the tilt. Nothing moves.
Danny watches the two fires join up at the other end of the table and merge into one. Then, as if by some bizarre mating, they split into ten or twelve smaller flames that form a horse shoe around the table. Danny is trapped in the mouth of the U. He can feel the temperature of the room as it begins to climb. He tries again to butt the table up and off of him, but this time the wood feels alive. It is actually resisting him. He feels certain that the table is in cahoots with the now dozens of tiny flames that surround him.
One flame crosses under the table and parks itself right in front of Danny’s hot face. Danny looks into it and sees what he was trying to see before, a sign.
The clearest of all clues to what his future holds. He sees himself lying on the dining room floor, charred to blackness. Where once there was an abundance of thick, blonde hair with just the right amount of wave, there is only black, burned scalp with little rivulets and streams of blood and puss coursing over his cracked flesh. Danny sees his own bones protruding from his shoulders and his hands almost free of skin. He sees his eyeballs are burned away, and there is smoke coming out of the sockets.
It is this last image that causes Danny to scream. He is astonished to hear his desperate cries coming out as shrill, distinct beeps. He has become the fire alarm. The sound hurts his ears and worse than that, it annoys him. Still… he can’t make himself stop screaming.
The small fires gather closer to Danny, and panic sets in. His heart accelerates. He can feel it beating away like the hoofs of some cursed race horse…faster and faster. Danny can feel the friction of his ventricular valves opening and closing. His heart is overheating. It is burning up.
Danny can feel the fire moving up into his throat and soon can see actual flames shooting out of his mouth. His hands are out of control, flopping and flailing, and his legs are kicking out randomly as he tries vainly to put out the fires. His arms are still pinned by the weight of the table
Danny hears the tiny “whoosh” as the flames jump from the floor to the table. He can’t see them anymore, but soon he can feel them eating away the clothes and flesh on his back and burning his hair.
Danny is still screaming in the unbearably high and painful pitch of a fire alarm gone insane. He wonders briefly what Sandy will think when she sees this.
Everything is burning now: Danny, the mahogany table, the side dishes (canned cranberries and beans), and the turkey. Soon the walls of the dining room are engulfed, but nothing more. The rest of the house remains untouched as if some invisible, fire-proof door had been closed on the room.
Danny wants to bring his charred hands up to his face to protect his eyes which have already started to boil, but there is no way to get his arms free. There is nothing to do but relish the relief that is bound to come with death.
The last thing Danny sees is a ghost of an old woman in a yellow rain coat and black orthopedic shoes. She is trying hard to smile but only manages a grimace.

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE
October 8, This Year
Ty and Karen left Mabel’s house quickly. They wanted to be sure and miss the police. If they were lucky, no one would be able to figure out who they were and what they were really doing at Robert Isaacson’s house. Mr. Isaacson was obviously not the man they were looking for. He would be of no use to the swarm in his current condition.
Their next possibility, Ralph Isker lived at E.3567 Trent Avenue. It was an intense nerve racking twenty minutes from Mabel Isaacson’s house. Somehow that strange time they spent with the woman and her revolver had stretched out longer than either Karen or Ty would have guessed. The whole incident felt like only a few minutes, but the reality was more like an hour. It would be amazing if none of the neighbors had heard the shots or seen their car.
Now, in the light of the outside world, there was a sense of extreme urgency. They needed to get to Ralph’s as soon as possible. Both Karen and Ty sensed that something about their encounter with Mabel was too off the charts crazy to not somehow be a part of what was going on in Learning. The universe was lobbing insane husband killers in their path for heaven’s sake. It was too weird not to matter.

Karen thought about what had happened to her in New York the day after she had first been visited by her father, about the mugging and the car accident that had stolen months from her. She felt that all of them, Mahogany, her father, Ty and she herself were the living pieces in some cosmic game of battleship.
Someone or something was moving the universe to slow her down, and someone else, the one who had brought her father back and who had given her Ty was helping her succeed. Could it all be as simple as that: just a game between friends?
Karen realized that knowing the reason for everything that was happening wouldn’t change what she had to do. She would continue to play her part because if she succeeded her father would be freed and her mother could be at peace. She was in this until the end…game or not.
As Karen drove, Ty continued to flip through the pages of the local newspaper. On the bottom of a page three in from the front, there was a little article about the state elections in Idaho. It caught Ty’s attention, and he read it out loud.

“There has been a lot of mud slung in this year’s political races, especially in the race for senate in the third district. On the one hand, we have Margaret Isker of Coeur d’Alene, making bold insinuations that her opponent, James Foster, is working for the mob. ‘Why else,’ asks Isker, ‘would he be in such a hurry to turn Idaho over to them?’ Isker has said on several occasions that she believes allowing gambling to gain legal status in this state would be an invitation to the mob. Isker believes gambling will bring the state down to the level of Nevada with vice and prostitution running rampant. Isker’s home town in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho would be one of the cities most greatly affected by the legalization of gambling in this state. She warns that there are already several machines in place in certain resorts and hotels simply awaiting the law that will make their use legal. The would-be state senator reminds the people of her district about the campaigning her opponent has done in concert with candidates from other districts who also want to see gambling come to Idaho. She thinks that such coalitions have already undermined the people of the third district.
In response to Isker’s accusations, James Foster, also of Coeur d’Alene, said to members of the press, ‘Margaret Isker wants to be elected as Idaho’s Big Sister. She wants to save us from ourselves and our inability to make decisions for ourselves and our state. At the moment, she’s basing her entire campaign on one issue. The woman is simply not well enough informed about what is happening in this state to have a leadership position. I would also like to apologize on her behalf to the many law abiding citizens of Nevada for her constant slander and ridicule of that state. Mrs. Isker is making all of us look bad. Someone should teach her some manners.'”
“You know, Ty,” Karen said. “I just have this feeling about Ralph Isker. I think he’s going to be the one.”

They pulled up to the large pink and white house. It looked brand new. “The Iskers must be doing pretty well.” Karen said.
“Maybe we shouldn’t park in front,” Ty suggested.
“You think they’ll call the police or something?”
“Maybe… I don’t know. It just seems like a good idea to leave as little trace of ourselves as possible. The police are probably already looking for us by now.”
Karen drove past the house, and kept going for two more blocks. She turned right and parked in front of a neighborhood bike shop that looked like it was closed for the day. They got out and walked back toward the Isker home taking the long way around.
Just as they were about to turn the corner onto Bridgeport, the street that ran behind Trent Avenue, Karen tugged on Ty’s sleeve and whispered for him to stop.

“What’s going on?” Ty asked. He felt his nerves like tightly wound coils.
“Don’t you see her?” Karen whispered.
“No…Where?”
“There…walking up to the house.”
And sure enough, there she was, Mahogany Fisher, escorting a body full of mischievous spirits up to the front door of their next victim.
“I guess we don’t need to go in there right now,” Karen said.
“I don’t think that would be very smart. We can come back tomorrow. At least we know she’s probably not going to hurt him.”
“No,” Karen agreed. “The swarm needs Ralph Isker far too much. He’ll be fine until October tenth.”
“I wish I could say the same for us.” Ty said, trying to smile.
I am the eye in the sky looking at you
I can read your mind
I am the maker of rules dealing with fools
I can cheat you blind
And I don’t need to see any more to know that
I can read your mind
Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson: 1980s
CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR
October 8
Ralph came down the stairs for dinner as the wind blew the door open. He hadn’t realized it was so cold outside. He would have to turn up the heat.
“Something smells good,” He said as he walked into the dining room. “What’s for dinner?” Thank goodness it was Margaret’s night to cook. Ralph didn’t think he could handle a hot stove. He’d been so scatter brained all day. He would probably end up burning the house down.
“It’s my famous chicken lasagna,” Margaret answered. Her voice sounded distant. “But I think I may have used too much cheese.”
“You can never use too much cheese, Mom.” Tammy was in the dining room setting the table. Ralph could hear the silverware and porcelain dishes as they made contact with the table.
Ralph remembered his daughter as a little girl. She was quiet and shy to a fault. For a long time, he and Margaret had worried about her. She had such a hard time with people. She used to be terrified of strangers. Now she seemed completely out of her shell. She had grown into a beautiful, outspoken teenager. Ralph was sure she had a bright future. Maybe she would even follow in her mother’s footsteps and crusade for truth and justice and all that. That thought brought a brief smile to Ralph’s face. He smiled, but no one saw it.

“Are you feeling better, Dear?” Margaret asked when she saw her husband. Earlier, Ralph told Margaret he was dealing with a headache, and that had been the truth. He had given himself a headache worrying about that threatening letter. Where was it? Ralph was absolutely sure he had placed it in his wallet before he went to bed.
“Much better, Thanks. I think it was the smell of your great cooking that did the trick.”
“You might get your headache back once you taste it.” Margaret’s voice still sounded a little bit strange to Ralph. He was straining to hear her.
“Oh, Mom,” Tammy laughed. “You’re so modest. You know you’ve never had a meal turn out badly in your whole life. Why can’t you just admit that you’re a great cook?”
“Because if I admitted it, I wouldn’t get to hear you remind me all the time, and that is something I love to hear.”
Everyone laughed.
Ralph sat down at the dinner table. Where had the letter disappeared to? He’d spent his whole day at work worrying about it.
Margaret came out of the kitchen holding the pan of lasagna with the blue and orange oven mitts someone had given the family as Christmas presents last year. They were ugly as sin (someone had gone crazy with a geese motif), and no one ever intended to use them, but somehow they managed to find their way out of the drawer every once in a while.
Ralph stared after Tammy who went to get the garlic bread.
“What are you so worried about?” Margaret asked.
“It’s nothing,” Ralph wondered why his ears weren’t working properly, “just something boring from work.”
“We wouldn’t mind hearing about it. Would we Tammy?” Margaret raised her voice a little so her daughter would hear.
“Of course we wouldn’t,” came the reply from the kitchen.
“You’ve been so great about listening to all my campaign stuff,” Margaret said sincerely. “And I haven’t even asked you how things are going at work. I wouldn’t blame you if you felt a little neglected.” She put the lasagna on the wood block that was the centerpiece of the fake marble table.
“Not at all,” Ralph couldn’t concentrate on what she was saying. He had this terrible feeling, like somehow that note and what happened to it was very important.
“Well let’s hear it anyway.”
Truth was, Ralph couldn’t come up with a single interesting story about his job. Things were just clicking along like regular. Nothing was ever out of the ordinary, always business as usual. That was the way Ralph liked things. He wasn’t like Margaret. He didn’t have to stir things up.
“Some other time,” he said.

“Dad!” Tammy’s scream came from the kitchen, crashing head long into the muddled dullness of his hearing. The clear shrillness of his daughter’s voice hurt Ralph’s ears.
“Daddy, help me!” Tammy screamed again. “Oh, My God!”
Ralph was up and down the hallway in seconds. He stopped in the doorway to the kitchen. Tammy was standing with her back up against the sink. She had both of her hands held up in front of her face, and she was still screaming.
Tammy’s fingers were falling off. One by one, they were being sheared away by some invisible razor. Blood was pouring from her hands.
“Daddy, what is this? Why is this happening?”
Ralph stepped into the room. It was like stepping into a frozen nightmare. The skin on his face and hands felt as if it might freeze and break off from the cold…the cold that seemed to be emanating from where his daughter was standing. All of her fingers were gone now, and the blood was soaking into her baby blue sweater (another gift from last year’s Christmas).
Ralph went to take another step into the kitchen; an act which if successfully executed would have come only about three seconds after the first. Ralph didn’t move an inch. There was something like a force field holding him in place. Ralph could press his hands against the sides of it, but he could not see it. He was trapped, unable to go to his daughter.

Margaret was able to go to Tammy. She grabbed a towel she would use to wrap her daughter’s hands thinking only of stopping the bleeding. Margaret was always the clear thinker, but when her own fingers started to fall off, she screamed and screamed.
At first all Ralph heard was how loud it was. He didn’t know how any one person could make that much sound. Then he realized she was saying something.
“Call the police, Ralph! Someone is in here!” Ralph’s wife screamed.
“Daddy, my feet are bleeding…my toes!” Tammy screamed in that shrill painful voice.
Ralph turned his face from his wife to look down at his daughter’s feet. Her white Nike Airs were deep red now and a puddle was forming quickly around her feet.
While Tammy continued to scream, Margaret only sobbed. Her feet were bleeding too, and nothing Ralph could do would get him out of his invisible cage. There was no way to wake himself up from this nightmare. He stood there trapped, not even able to make sound come out of his own mouth, watching his wife and daughter being chopped to bits by someone he couldn’t see.
Tammy’s ears had fallen off. Blood was spewing from her head. Margret’s ears made the leap right on cue, about ten seconds later. Both mother and daughter now had their fingerless hands held up to the place their ears should have been. Tammy screamed. Margaret sobbed. Both of them looked at Ralph, who appeared uninterested in helping them.
Tammy’s nose came off with an unceremonious slice and splatted to the floor in a pool of blood. Daughter then wife, Ralph could only watch as pieces of his family were cut away.
“My God! Call the police Ra…” Then Margaret’s tongue smacked to the pale linoleum floor and more blood poured out of her mouth.
Now, both of the women in Ralph’s life were on the floor. Their heads were severed from what was left of their bodies. The screaming and sobbing had finally…mercifully stopped.

Ralph was dizzy. The room spun and then tilted as if someone jacked up the other end of the house.
What seemed like an entire lake of blood poured down the floor to the place where Ralph was trapped. The once somewhat bored insurance salesman was forced to listen to the horrifying sound of the miscellaneous body parts smacking and thumping against the sides of whatever it was he was trapped in. It sounded like glass. Maybe it was some kind of hard plastic. Ah, but it didn’t matter. For now, insanity had set in.
Ralph was standing in the only dry spot in what seemed like an entire universe. It was a square about the size of a phone booth floor. How ridiculous. How incredible. There was absolutely no way he was going to put up with this nightmare any longer. Ralph intended to wake up right now…so he screamed.
The invisible phone booth or whatever it was disintegrated, and the blood and bits of his family washed into him.

Ralph lost it. There was nothing to do now but panic… and run. He turned on his heels and headed down the hall and back into the dining room. The blood followed him, so he ran out into the living room which was already soaked in blood. Everything was red, and Ralph couldn’t recognize anything.
A voice broke through the panic for just long enough to be heard and understood. It sounded wicked and old. Ralph couldn’t tell if it belonged to a man or a woman. He would have guessed neither if he had been in a mood to guess. The voice seemed to come from everything, the furniture, the walls, the appliances, and the blood. It was smug and hateful, but very, very clear.
“You were warned, and you didn’t do what you needed to. This is your fault, and everyone will know that you did this.”
Now, everything was more than clear. Sanity had returned, and the blood soaked insurance salesman was certain. He had just been framed by the mob for the murder of his wife and child. He had lost everything, and he was going to jail, likely to be executed, and it was that easy.
That was it. That was Ralph Isker’s very last moment of clarity. He held that one clear thought in his mind as he bolted from his house drenched in blood and as he ran out into the public eye. All other thoughts became random and useless.

The sun was on its way down, but there was still enough light in the sky for the neighbors to see Ralph Isker, insurance salesman and would be husband of the state senator run screaming from his house. He was bent over slightly, but still making good time. He slowed for a moment standing over his prize rose garden and vomited.
Martin, the five year old who Tammy baby sat from time to time attached himself to his father’s leg and said something that no one else heard. Ralph heard it, but Ralph was hearing lots of things now.
Martin latched onto to his father’s leg, but kept his face turned toward the Isker home. He said, “Daddy, that old lady is a witch!”
Ralph ran down the sidewalk and got into the driver’s side of his dark blue Buick (nothing if not the car for all boring insurance salesmen). He should have been surprised to find the keys already in the ignition, but he wasn’t. Ralph backed out of the driveway squealing tires and burning rubber. He didn’t notice the bloody knife on the seat next to him until he was three blocks away.

Ralph was going to have to go somewhere to get his head on straight, which would be easier for him than it would be for Margaret or Tammy. He laughed and laughed and drove like the devil.

CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE
October 9
Yesterday had been a good day for Karen and Ty. They found their man. Now all they had to do was keep an eye on him. Maybe, they would camp out in front of his house tonight just to make sure.
Karen felt that she and Ty had done everything they could for now. They had exchanged their rental car for a different model and color car from another rental agency. Karen had written and mailed three letters to Ralph Isker urging him once again not to be fooled by the occupants. He would probably get those letters today. Even if Ralph thought Karen was a crack pot, he wouldn’t be caught off guard when the swarm came for him. He would be likely to refuse them.
Ty had done some hunting and found out where Mr. Isker worked and mailed a couple of letters to his office. It didn’t seem like there was any possibility that Ralph would willingly let the swarm in after having all that warning, and there was still one more day to reach him.
Yesterday, after the letters had been written and mailed, Karen and Ty felt hopeful. They were emotionally drained and physically exhausted, so they got a motel room. It was less than five minutes after Karen set her bag down inside the door that both she and Ty were deeply asleep on top of the orange and blue sea shells and star fish. They didn’t turn on the TV. They didn’t order in pizza and they didn’t make love. Each of them was granted the most peaceful sleep they’d been allowed since this whole thing began. They slept without dreaming and awoke refreshed.
Now, Karen and Ty were sitting on the bed still in their street clothes from the day before cuddling. Ty said, “Maybe it’s time we re-connected with the outside world.”
“I’ll see if I can find the remote,” Karen said agreeably, and after a little searching, she found it on the floor in front of the night stand. It was almost noon.

“Now for our top story,” It was a stiff older woman with a mid-length regulation newscaster hair cut in a grayish blue blazer with a satiny off-white blouse underneath. It seemed to both Karen and Ty that she was speaking in slow motion and maybe laughing just a bit beneath her somber expression. “Margaret Isker, candidate for Senate and strong anti-gambling spokeswoman along with her fifteen year old daughter Tammy was found dead yesterday evening around five pm. The two were apparently murdered in their own home. Currently the only suspect in these grisly murders is Ralph Isker, husband and father, who was seen fleeing the home just after the murders would have taken place. Neighbors who saw Ralph Isker say he was soaked in blood and carrying a knife. Police are searching for him now. Linda Richardson has more on this amazing story.”
Now, there was a young, dark complexioned woman with her hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. She was wearing jeans and a sweater. Karen guessed they wanted her to look spontaneous. She was standing in front of the Isker home, which had now become somewhat of a gathering place for reporters and gore seeking neighbors. There was a strip of yellow police tape running the length of the yard and you could see the police behind Linda carrying out plastic bags that were filled with something horrible.
“We have to find him,” Karen said flatly.
“She was there to kill his family.” Ty seemed dazed.
“We have to go.”
So they got off the bed and without showering or brushing their teeth, Karen and Ty began searching for a needle in a hay stack.

In the car they listened to the radio news, hoping that maybe the police would find Ralph and share his whereabouts, but nothing like that happened. Ralph Isker had somehow managed to become invisible. Karen and Ty knew that if the swarm didn’t want Ralph found, there was a good chance that he wouldn’t be.
After an hour of random driving,Ty stopped in front of a newspaper dispenser. Karen jumped out and bought a local paper. There was nothing helpful in it. There was one paragraph about a Mabel Isaacson, wife of one dead Robert Isaacson who was pleading insanity as a result of mental cruelty in the shooting death of her husband. There was no mention of two strange visitors or of an unknown man who called in the murder. Apparently, it was an open and shut case.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX
October 10
Mahogany Fisher had no idea where she was or how long she’d been there, but she knew that she was in pain, and she knew that the swarm had everything going according to plan. Now, they were trying to make her join them. Mahogany knew that over the centuries, thousands of workers had been born this way (surrendering their souls at the brink of complete madness). With every addition, the swarm got smarter, stronger…and more insane.
Mahogany also knew that thousands in her position had held on to themselves and died with their souls if not their consciences intact.
What would come after death was a mystery, but the answer was very close now. The time was at hand.
Mahogany felt the swarm surge inside her. She was painfully conscience of her body’s organs bursting open as the bees moved closer to the surface. They were pressing against her skin. Mahogany felt herself thinning.
There were bees now flying out of her nose and mouth, and Mahogany felt her stomach split open. The bees were on the outside crawling and buzzing…and taking flight. She saw them flying out of the window and felt herself disintegrate.
Just before the mystery of death was solved, Mahogany saw something that filled her with hope and despair. She was hopeful that she might have an opportunity to play a role in the destruction of the swarm. She despaired because what she hoped would be the restful calm of death was going to be nothing of the sort.

Mahogany bent up and out of her body which to her surprise looked remarkably whole. There were no open wounds and no signs of her possession. The body looked for the entire world to be that of an old, old woman, who laid herself down to sleep last night and never woke up. Mahogany realized for the first time that she was in a motel room. She was not alone.
The room took on odd proportions. It grew larger somehow, and Mahogany was in a crowd of people. They were ghosts. There must have been some five thousand of them all looking at her as if awaiting something profound. Mahogany was speechless.
There was no question in her mind about who these people were. She recognized each of them from the memories she was forced to share with the swarm. These were the other victims; the others who had been tricked into giving up ten years of their lives so that a great malignant sickness could flourish. They were the ones who held on and, in the end, did not join the madness that held them prisoner. It was a winner’s circle. Mahogany, though exhausted, felt proud to be among them.

Each of the people in the room was covered in a blanket of some sort of insect or flying bug, and each of them wore a somber expression of urgency and purpose.
Mahogany hadn’t noticed it before, but her head was covered in bees. She could just barely hear them buzzing and only slightly feel the sting. She understood that as the years went by it would get worse, and she understood that she deserved it.
Mahogany knew that such a gathering of spirits had never taken place before anytime or anywhere. None of the others knew if what they were planning would work, but all of them knew it was the only hope. Things had gotten so far out of hand. The swarm was getting stronger. Human kind didn’t stand a chance if the swarm was allowed to continue. There would be no happiness or joy left in the world.
Most of the others seemed off in the distance but there were two people who were close enough that in another time Mahogany might have reached out and touched them. On her right was a woman named Vivian Raymore.

Vivian let the occupants in when she was twenty-five. She had her whole life ahead of her. She had inherited over five million dollars from her grandmother on her father’s side, and she had married a wonderful man who loved her deeply. They were married at Christmas time.
About two and a half years later, Vivian came to believe that her husband was having an affair and plotting to kill her so that he would inherit her money. It was one of the swarm’s best set-ups ever.
Vivian’s husband, Daniel, was having an affair, and the young couple might have parted ways, but Daniel would never purposefully hurt Vivian. He had no designs on her money. In fact, he was hoping she would never be affected by his affair. He had already made plans to end it, but the swarm had no intention of letting Vivian in on that information.
On October tenth of that year at around ten o’clock in the morning, the swarm took control of the accelerator and brakes on Vivian’s car. As she careened down the highway at break-neck speed, the occupants came to her with a promise of revenge and justice, and Vivian let them in. Now, she was covered in flies.

On Mahogany’s left was a man. He was tortured by the memory of how the swarm caused him to develop a brain tumor at a time when his young family was struggling to make ends meet. They promised him he could leave his wife and daughter in good financial shape without any worries about insurance or overdue bills. When the swarm left this young man, they killed his wife, just for the poetry of it.
The man’s name was Karl Penwalski, and he was the one with the plan.

CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN
October 10
Ralph drove as if under hypnosis out along a back road he’d forgotten he knew about. He drove to the hotel (the Hotel Matherson) where he and Margaret first made love, back when they had only been together a few months.
It was stupid really. Ralph was covered in blood. It wouldn’t be surprising if someone had seen him and called the police already, but no one there seemed to notice. The desk clerk smiled politely when he hurried in. He told Ralph to go straight up to his room. No need to check in. He could pay when he was ready to leave. It was all so easy.
Ralph sat there on the overly soft hotel bed in what felt very much like a drunken stupor. The mattress was hidden by a spread that was mostly green, but covered in an orchard of little orange blossoms that seemed to move and stream before his eyes.
Ralph tried to clear his head, but all he could think about was what he had just seen and the horrible voice telling him that it was his fault that his wife and daughter had been chopped to bits. He alone would be blamed. The anger Ralph felt was almost paralyzing.

He closed his eyes for a moment and for the first time became consciously aware of the buzzing sound that had been growing steadily since about ten o’clock this morning. At first, it seemed to be coming from next door. Now, it was outside, and it was getting closer.
Ralph’s hotel room had a big window that faced the parking lot. The curtains were open, and Ralph could see a dark form looming just beyond the glass. It was so huge, that it managed to steal the daylight. It was terrifying.
Ralph could hear voices coming from the blackness. It sounded at first like a million tiny conversations, and then it was a group of people speaking in unison. It was soothing to him and haunting, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. Ralph was very tired.
A strange wind came up outside of Ralph’s hotel room. He could hear it. It was like a tornado, and it blew out the window of his room and blew the dark form inside. The door blew open, and more darkness entered the room.

Ralph sat on the bed. He was no longer concerned because now he could understand what the voices were telling him. They were telling him to relax. Everything was going to be fine.
Now, the buzzing was back, and Ralph realized that the form he was looking at was an incredible swarm. It looked like dragon flies. They had filled every nook and cranny of the room, and Ralph guessed that some of them were still outside. Strangely enough, the realization that his room (except for a small area around him on the bed) was covered in talking insects didn’t cause Ralph the slightest bit of distress. It felt like a good thing. Ralph wanted to talk to someone.

“We know you didn’t kill your wife and daughter,” The voices said as one. “And we can help you prove it.”
Ralph couldn’t tell if the voice was actually there or if somehow the insects were speaking inside his head. It didn’t matter.
“I don’t care if people think I killed them. I can’t go on without them. I just want someone to pay for this.”
“We can help you with that too. We’ll make sure somebody pays for your wife’s death. We’ll make sure James Foster pays for it.”
James Foster. It was true then. James Foster had cashed in on his mob favors and murdered Ralph’s wife and daughter. He had taken away everything that meant anything to Ralph just to keep the people of Idaho from hearing the truth.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I want. James Foster should pay for all of this. How can you do it? How can I help you?”
“Just open your mouth and let us in.”
“What?”
“If you let us in, we’ll see that you get what you want, and then you can be at peace about it. You can relax and clear your mind. All this confusion you’re feeling and all these decisions you think you have to make will go away. We’ll do everything for you from now on. Just open your mouth.”
There was something that Ralph wanted to remember, but when he tried to think about it, all he heard was that voice. He was now certain that it had been James Foster’s voice telling him that he should have shut Margaret up. It was certainly James Foster who had chopped off Margaret’s tongue when she screamed for help, and it was James Foster who had sliced off his little girl’s nose before she ever had a chance to start a family of her own.
The thing Ralph almost remembered was gone, replaced by a sweet image of the destruction he would soon bring down on the world of James Foster. Ralph opened his mouth.
It was five minutes after ten.

CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT
October 10
Karen and Ty both knew that it was too late for them to help Ralph Isker. It wasn’t likely that he had gone back to the scene of the crime to check for his mail, so the only hope was that he had remembered Karen’s phone call.
There wasn’t a lot they could do right now, but Karen wanted to keep looking for Ralph. If he had refused the swarm, he would need some help to clear his name, so she and Ty were driving. They had no reason to go in one direction more than any other, but it felt like they had to keep going.
Ty said that if Ralph had let the swarm in, he and Karen would have to move to Texas and warn people. They would write letters to the editor and show pictures of the man who was wanted for murder in Coeur d’Alene. Maybe, they could slow him down a little…or maybe they could get themselves killed. Either way, it wouldn’t be right to let things end this way.
Karen and Ty made a pact with each other that they would do absolutely everything in their powers to put an end to The Occupants, even if it meant dying in the effort.
Karen was driving too fast for the curvy road she was on, but Ty didn’t think this was a good time to mention it. He only looked out of his window and wished for some sort of sign. If they could find Ralph, they would know what had to be done.

Ty was working through a possible worst case scenario when he was startled out of his thoughts by a sudden thrust forward and the sound of squealing tires. Karen was trying to stop. Ty put his arms out just in time to keep himself from smacking into the dash.
“Wha….?” But then he saw it too.
There was a man standing in the middle of the road. He was covered in something black. It was a suit of bugs that was eating away at him. He was standing in a puddle of blood. Ty was terrified and heartbroken.
“My God, Karen, is that your father?” Ty tried to control his breathing.
Karen didn’t hear the question. She opened her car door and slid out. Ty did the same. They walked around to the front of the car so that they were standing face to face with the specter. Karen took Ty by the hand. They waited to see what Karl Penwalski had to say.

“Karen I have something to ask you…It’s something difficult, but I can’t think of another way.”
“What is it?” Karen’s voice was barely audible. Ty thought she sounded exhausted. “What more can I possibly do?”
Suddenly, the street was filled with what looked like tens of thousands of people. They were all covered in different kinds of insects, and all of them were bleeding. They all had pleading eyes turned on Karen.
Ty instinctively pulled Karen toward him and away from the monstrous crowd.
“What is this?” He asked in a whisper.
“I think it’s the rest of them,” Karen said. “All the people the swarm possessed for thousands of years.”
“Only the ones whose souls they couldn’t own. The other victims are occupants now.” Karl said. The puddle he was standing in had grown.
“What do you want me to do? You know I’d do anything to stop this.”
From thin air a woman that both Karen and Ty recognized appeared next to Karl. It was Mahogany Fisher, and she was crawling with bees.
The air was filled with the sound of an unfathomable number of crawling, humming, and buzzing insects.
“What do you want?” Karen asked again.
“I need you to let us in.”
It was 10:15. Karen closed her eyes.

CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE
11:30
The successful private lawyer and would-be senator, James Foster, was sitting behind a desk at his down town office working on his campaign. He was sure to win now that his opponent, Margaret Isker, had been brutally murdered. James actually thought he might call Ralph Isker up and thank him for his contribution, but no one knew where exactly Mr. Isker was.
It didn’t occur to James that he might be in any danger from Ralph Isker. It was obvious that the poor man had simply blown a gasket somewhere and completely lost his mind. His wife was probably cheating on him or something. Maybe things were going poorly in the insurance biz. Who knew? Who cared? The main thing was that no one else was going to have enough time to mount a successful opposition campaign. James had already been getting calls from former Isker supporters. Life just didn’t get much better than this.

CHAPTER FORTY
Ty was geared up and stressed out, but he tried to maintain an air of calm as he drove the rented brown minivan through the streets of Coeur d’Alene following Karen’s explicit directions.
Ty was afraid for her. Her voice had changed, and sometimes he suspected he wasn’t talking to Karen at all. It was as if the people inside her had taken over completely, and Karen was lost.
Ty knew that what they were doing was more important than any one person, and he knew he was selfish in wanting to turn the car around and run like a thief to the nearest airport and fly way the hell to the other side of the world (if he was lucky, the swarm wouldn’t make it to China again for another hundred years or so). Ty knew that wanting to run and protect his own little world was very selfish, but that was exactly what he wanted to do.
“Turn here,” Karen said in the voices that were not her own. “Do you see him?”
“No, not yet.”
“You have to concentrate. He’s in the parking lot…there standing next to the dark blue truck.”
Ty concentrated.
“No…Oh wait, there he is. I can see him now.”
“Pull in and park. You have to stay in the car.” Was that Karen or her father?
“You don’t have to do this by yourself,” Ty said. “I want to help you.”
“Ty, you have to stay here. I’ll be alright.” It was Karen, all by herself. She was still in there somewhere.
“Are you sure? Karen, I don’t mind risking my life for you.”
“I’m sure. When you’re positive that it’s over, come and get me. We’ll have to get out of here as soon as we can.”
Ty backed into a spot along the back wall of the lot so that he was facing Ralph Isker and all the spirits that had made a home of his body. He rolled down his window.
Karen touched Ty on the shoulder and then got out of the van. Ty watched as she walked toward Ralph. Even her walk was different. She walked like a soldier heading into battle.

At first, Ralph didn’t notice Karen. He was busy doing something to a silver sports car that was parked close to the entrance of the building. When he did see Karen, he stopped what he was doing and started to laugh. Ty couldn’t actually hear the laughter, and he had a hard time focusing on Ralph’s face because he was that far away, but he could feel that laughter. It terrified him. Ty’s instinct was to get out of the car and run to Karen, but he knew that would probably make things worse. He would be a distraction for her and she needed to concentrate.
Ralph turned and walked away from Karen. He was heading toward the entrance of the building. The plan was to kill James Foster and frame him for the murder of Ralph’s wife and daughter. Ralph didn’t much care anymore. He knew all there was to know now, and he saw nothing to be gained by taking the life of an innocent. The Occupants seemed to think it was important though because they had promised Ralph they would make James Foster pay for the murder of his wife and child. Ralph had assumed that the promise was confirmation that James Foster was responsible for the murders. Apparently it wasn’t necessary for someone to be guilty in order for them to pay. How poetic.
Ralph knew why the Occupants were so concerned about keeping the promises they had made to him. They made a mistake ten years ago and broke a promise. That mistake had almost cost them everything. That mistake was why this foolish young woman was following him into the building. She was following him full of justice and self-righteousness. But those things would not protect her. She was committing suicide.
The swarm had a second motive for making James Foster pay for the two gruesome murders he did not commit. The Occupants needed the man hunt for Ralph to end so he could start his new life in San Antonio. James Foster was a very important loose end and the swarm intended to tie him off properly and finally.

Karen yelled for Ralph to stop. Her voice seemed strange to him and to the swarm.
The Occupants turned Ralph around and started him laughing that wicked stomach turning laugh again. Karen could see the horse flies buzzing around behind his dark eyes and in his mouth. They seemed to be dancing inside the blackness. Karen had to force herself to stand her ground and not move backwards. They were only about two yards away.
In broad daylight and in plain view of the offices facing the parking lot, Karen was lifted off the ground about three feet into the air and spun around like a cheap child’s toy. Ralph could only watch in wonder.
Karen didn’t seem upset by this new situation. She was clearly expecting it. Her face wore the expression of a bored parent waiting out the tantrum of a tiresome child.
From Ty’s perspective, this display of malicious power seemed to go on for quite some time. Finally, Karen was speaking. Ty wished he could hear.

“Ralph,” Karen said in a voice that sounded a little more normal. “You have to help me.”
“I forgot, Karen. You warned me, but I forgot.” It was only Ralph’s thoughts that Karen heard. Ralph had no control over what came out of his mouth.
“What is this?” The swarm demanded in their many death-filled voices. “Who is with you?”
Karen’s feet touched down on the pavement for a moment and then she was up in the air again. She was no longer spinning.
“Ralph, you have to relax,” Karen said. “Stop trying to fight them. It’s no use. Just relax.”
The occupants were quickly becoming angry, but Ralph was in the safe place. They could hear his thoughts, but they couldn’t hurt him. He could feel the crawling though, and that was almost bad enough. He tried to relax.
“Now open your mouth.” Karen said.
The occupants had grown so angry now that they couldn’t concentrate on Karen anymore. She fell to the ground with a thud.
Ralph put all of his concentration on the task of opening his mouth, but he couldn’t seem to do it.
“I can’t,” he thought.
“Then I’ll do it for you.”
Karen got up and walked deliberately and slowly toward Ralph. Ralph moved as if planning to take a step backwards but then held his position. Karen couldn’t make out anymore of Ralph’s thoughts. She could hear buzzing and understood that the spirits inside Ralph were confused. She had taken them by surprise and now their confusion had them paralyzed.
Karen stood now only inches away from Ralph. She tried not to look into his eyes because she knew that would break her concentration and she needed that. Everyone had to be working together, or none of this was going to work, and Ty was going to sit in that rental car and watch as the woman he loved was torn limb from limb by a swarm of angry spirits.
Karen brought her hands up to Ralph’s face and pushed his lips apart with her fingers. She forced her fingernails and then the tips of her fingers into the small space where his top teeth grew over just a bit too far.
Karen pulled with all her strength and with the collective strength of the spirits inside her. Ralph did his best to help.

The occupants were still confused. They had no idea how Karen was so strong, and they couldn’t figure out why she would want Ralph’s mouth open. Their confusion made them weaker. The teeth were beginning to part.
The Occupants were screaming with Ralph’s voice and with their own. Karen’s fingers were bloody, and Ralph was vaguely aware of the bloody taste in his mouth. He screamed and screamed, and still the parking lot remained empty.
Ralph pushed on Karen with his hands and punched her in the stomach. With his legs he tried to kick her, but with his mind, he tried desperately to help her.

Finally, Ralph’s mouth was open. Karen held it there and risked a glance into his eyes. She was surprised to see for the first time the poor timid man who had for years lived comfortably in the shadow of his wife, whose worst crime was loving his family enough to be driven to madness by the loss of them. Karen knew what was in store for Ralph if she and the spirits inside her were successful. Part of her wanted to turn away and let Ralph’s suffering be only what it was.
Karen heard her father’s voice. “You have to Karen. It’s the only way.”

Karen opened her own mouth as wide as it would go and pressed her lips tightly to Ralph’s as she pulled her hands away. She was hit by a staggering, rancid, overwhelming force. She was feeling the sickness that had possessed Ralph Isker because some of it was inside her. It was touching her and becoming part of her. Karen tried to pull herself away, but she couldn’t move. It started to rain.
Karen and Ralph stood locked in this deadly kiss for what seemed to Ty like an eternity but was really no more than about five minutes. He wanted to go to Karen, but he knew that if things went wrong, he would have more important things to do…in Texas.
Ty looked at the windows of the building and thought it was strange that still no one had been attracted to this bizarre scene. It occurred to him then that Karen and Ralph might both be invisible. Maybe, if someone looked out the window into the parking lot, all they would see was the rain, and a strange man sitting alone in his rental car looking like the world was about to end.

The time went by slowly for Karen and Ralph as well. The spirits that made a temporary home in Karen, were forcing their way into Ralph’s body. As they left Karen, they pushed Ralph’s swarm deeper and deeper inside him. Karen couldn’t feel the sickness anymore, but she knew she could never forget it. Once again she felt for poor Ralph who was in for more hell than anyone could ever possibly deserve.
When the transfer was complete, Karen felt herself falling away like an empty shell and was powerless to stop it. She hit the ground hard enough to break her right arm but, at that moment, didn’t even feel it.
Ty saw Karen fall away from Ralph and knew that her ordeal was over for now. He put the van into gear and headed over to collect her. When he got out, he paused a moment to look at Ralph. The man was shaking violently and hitting himself with tight fists. He had already bloodied his lower lip.
Karen had a nose bleed and seemed to be unconscious. Ty picked her up and carried her carefully, the way one lifts a baby bird with a broken wing, and laid her down on the back seat of the van.
He looked at Ralph one last time, and thought he saw him mouth the words “thank you.”

Epilogue
November 13
Karen Penwalski (she was back to using her maiden name) and Tyler Miller were having a pretty good life together so far. They’d been living together in peaceful Learning Idaho for almost nine years. Everything was going just fine.
Ty was elected Sheriff of Pallor County three years ago, and Karen was making a very good living selling her paintings.
Karen, sometimes with Ty in tow, went to New York about once every six months or so and stayed long enough to show and sell her latest master pieces. About once every two or three months Karen and Ty went to visit Karen’s father and all the others at the Mental Health Institute in Coeur d’Alene just to make sure everything was still okay. They wanted to make sure that when the time came for Ralph’s occupants to die, they died.
Today’s visit to Ralph was going to be extremely important and extremely risky. Karen and Ty knew that the only reason Ralph and The Occupants weren’t out murdering people, (Ty and Karen included), was that the new tenant spirits were constantly fighting for control. They knew that on the occasions when those visiting spirits were distracted, bad things happened because the swarm was able to control Ralph’s mind and use it to create mischief.
Today Karen and Ty were going to distract the spirits in the hopes that by getting them to make Ralph speak they would be able to put an end to all of this forever.
…..
It was around ten o’clock in the morning when Mr. Isker’s regular visitors showed up. Almost everyone at the institute had gotten used to seeing the young couple. Karen and Ty checked in at the front desk and headed right up to the second floor where they checked in again.
Today was a little different because there was yet another new nurse on the second floor (there was a pretty high turnover rate here). Her name tag read Clara Butler. She seemed almost dangerously nervous, so nervous she might switch medications or forget to lock doors. Clara seemed to be literally shaking in her boots. Karen smiled at her. Who wouldn’t be nervous with someone as downright creepy as Ralph Isker to look after?
“It’s right down this hall. Room ten.” Clara said.
“Thanks.” Karen didn’t feel the need to mention that she and Ty had been there hundreds of times before. They followed Clara down the hall. Clara looked at Karen as if to ask if she really needed to go in there but didn’t say anything as she unlocked the door.
“There’s a buzzer by the door for when you’re ready to leave.”
“Okay, thanks.” Ty said.

As usual Karen and Ty found Ralph sitting on the floor next to his bed. His arms were locked in place with the sleeves of his straight jacket. He was twitching and grimacing but not moving from his spot. He seemed unaware of his visitors. Karen wondered briefly how the staff of the second floor dealt with Ralph. You couldn’t not sense the war raging inside him, and sometimes, you could even see the insects flying about just behind his eyes and in his mouth. She wondered how those people were able to come to work every day. If anyone would have asked Karen about it, she would have probably told them Ralph’s whole story. She didn’t see any reason not to, but no one ever mentioned it. Maybe, it was one of those things you couldn’t see unless you wanted to, or maybe, the staff found it easier to pretend that what they saw and what they felt were mere imaginings because there was no explanation that could satisfy.
“I’ll be right down the hall if you need me,” Clara said as she backed carefully out of the room.
When she was gone, Karen took Ty’s hand and took a few steps closer to the tortured man on the floor.

“Dad, I need to talk to you,” she began cautiously.
There was no change in Ralph. He still seemed completely unaware of anything outside of the war inside himself.
“Dad, I think that by now you should know who the next host was supposed to be, and I…well, I want to make sure nothing happens.”
This time Ralph’s eyes came to focus on Karen. At the same time the overhead light flickered. Karen and Ty took a step backwards.
“I know what’s at stake, Dad. I just have to make sure. I want this to be over…for all of us.”
Ralph’s mouth twitched and moved as if it was trying to open. This effort was accompanied by the explosive sound of glass shattering somewhere down the hall. People were screaming.
Karen and Ty didn’t know it at the time, but the big picture window at the front of the building, the one in the waiting room with the big grey and blue sofa’s and the outdated magazines, had somehow managed to break inward as if some outside force had come crashing through it. All the glass was hurled into the waiting room, big jagged pieces and tiny shards all in the air for a few highly destructive seconds.
There were four people sitting in the waiting room. It was the remnants of a family. The grey haired old woman sat with her hand on the knee of the old man on the sofa next to her. He was completely bald, and the light from the fluorescents made his scalp look yellowed and shiny. Across from them sat two much younger people, a man in his late twenties in a business suit with round, pretentious glasses resting on the tip of his nose (he had already lost about half of his once thick, black hair and spent a great deal of his time pretending not to notice it) and a woman who looked younger than the man but was actually six years older.
These were the normal children of the old man and woman, the children who hadn’t gone nuts two years ago and killed an entire classroom of high-school seniors by setting off a remote control explosive and hadn’t then tried to kill themselves by sucking in carbon monoxide fumes from their mother’s car and only succeeded in causing extensive brain damage. No, these were the good kids.
So Mom and Pop, daughter and son, all sat on grey and blue sofas pretending to read the outdated magazines while their minds played over and over again the sequence of events that led them to be guests at a mental institution. How could Randall have gone so far?
It was a bi-weekly ritual, the ride over in the daughter’s Bronco, the visit, and the wait on the grey and blue sofas for Randall’s doctor to come out and tell them there was nothing that could be done. No progress had been made.
This time as they sat there in mid-wonder, the window exploded and glass flew into the room as if propelled by some horrible tornado. Everyone hit the deck almost immediately, but it wasn’t quite fast enough.
The old woman (who was really only sixty) was hit in the face with a large piece of glass. She lost an eye, and would live the rest of her days with a long jagged scar down her left cheek.
The balding, young man was going to have to have plastic surgery to get his nose to hang right, and there was a deep cut in his leg that would require stitches.
The daughter and the father were lucky. They both suffered a lot of cuts but nothing that would require more than first aide.
There was so much confusion when the window broke that no one really noticed Clara slumping to the floor behind the front desk. People from all over the building came to help the surprised family in the waiting room, but not one of them would have guessed that Clara’s vertebral column had just disintegrated.

Back in Ralph Isker’s room, things appeared pretty calm, but all the spirits inside Ralph knew exactly what was going on. The Occupants were taking advantage of the distraction in order to work some of their magic on the world around them. It felt so good to have a little control again, but it was short lived. The others, the goodie- goodies, who were making their existence so miserable were back to stop the fun.
“Dad, I’m sorry, but I have to risk this. Can you help me?”
The lights went completely out, someone down the hall started to scream, but both Karen and Ty heard the last words Ralph Isker ever spoke.
“Laura Fitzgerald, Columbia, South Carolina.”
Then the lights came back on and things went eerily quiet. Ralph went back to his hell, and Karen and Ty hit the buzzer on the wall.
The new nurse who’d let them in didn’t come to let them out. It took a few more buzzes, but finally a man with a somber expression came to free them. He didn’t say a word.
The eerie quietness remained the pervasive sound of the place, but outside of Ralph Isker’s room a panic had set in. People were scurrying to and fro peeking into closets and under tables and chairs, all while seeming to make no sounds at all. It was silent, frantic disbelief.
“What happened out here?” Ty asked the back of the man’s head as they walked down the hall toward the second floor desk.
“The front window is broken….and one of our staff is missing.”
“Missing?”
But the man wasn’t going to say anymore.
Karen looked at the shattered glass that covered the waiting room. She knew that the blood there was her responsibility, and that the missing Clara Butler was her responsibility as well, but this had to be done, it just had to.

The search for Clara Butler would go on for years and would take the form of posters on trees, private investigators, and milk carton portraits, but no one would ever find her. There was a nurse named Evelyn Stokes who thought she knew where Clara was, but she wasn’t going to share her theories with another person for about twenty years or so.
In that distant future where Evelyn will be suffering from Alzheimer’s, she will have a moment of clarity and tell her companion in the nursing home about the night the window broke at The Coeur d’Alene Mental Health Institute, and Clara Butler, her co-worker, disintegrated right before her eyes. She will tell the old woman in the bed next to hers that Clara knew exactly what was happening to her the whole time. First she turned into a pile of boneless mush. Then she started to bubble and smoke. Then she was a stain on the floor, and then there was no trace of her.
Evelyn will tell her companion how she could feel Clara’s spirit crying out in pain as her essence filled the room and then dissipated, but Evelyn’s companion will have died in her sleep almost forty minutes before and won’t hear any of it.

A final look
Laura Fitzgerald had always been a believer, a condition that was rare in her family. Unlike her mother and father, Laura believed in reincarnation, she believed in mental telepathy and she believed in witchcraft. A lot of people called her a flake, but she had never much cared for people anyway.
Just recently, well almost a year ago, Laura met some people who shared her ability to believe. One of these, Karen Penwalski, was her new best friend.
Karen and her husband Ty Miller had moved to Columbia from the sticks, Learning Idaho, way up in the mountains. Karen had looked Laura up in the phone book because of something she’d learned from her father.
Karen and Ty had been on an amazing adventure over the past ten years, and now Laura was to be the conclusion of that adventure. She didn’t mind. It sounded like a worthy cause.
Right now, Laura was sitting on the sofa holding a cardboard sign with the word NO painted on it in big red letters. She was facing the television set, and Karen and Tyler were holding her hands.
Laura wanted to tell her new friends how much she appreciated them being there with her, and how glad she was that they had stopped the insanity that could have been her destiny, but she couldn’t thank them.
Her mouth was duct taped shut and would remain so for at least another hour.
It was ten o’clock.

%d bloggers like this: